When size matters: obese passengers and economy seating

Obesity and economy seating are an increasingly uncomfortable fit, reports Chris Vedelago.

One person, one fare, one seat. This has been the guiding formula for air travel since the early days of commercial flight. But what happens when one person can't fit in one seat?

It's an issue airlines are having to face as more and more passengers get bigger and bigger - the practical consequences of an obesity epidemic.

The options right now? Obese travellers can choose not to fly, fly if they can fit but be uncomfortable, or pay more to get more space.

"Should a customer require extra space on a flight, we will seat them next to an empty seat where possible," says a Qantas spokeswoman. "However, the only way for a customer to guarantee extra space is to either purchase two economy seats or fly business or first."

It's not just about the right of obese people to fly; it's also about the comfort and welfare of other passengers.

Similar obesity-related policies have been implemented by domestic and international carriers, almost industry-wide.

Is it fair? While the answer depends on who you ask, a recent Canadian court case has shown these policies can be discriminatory.

Last November, after a six-year legal battle, Canada's domestic airlines were forced to comply with a Federal Transport Agency rule instituting a one-person, one-fare policy that would see obese passengers receive an extra seat at no extra charge. The decision hinged on a new legal definition that said an obese person may be considered disabled for the purposes of air travel if they were unable to fit in an airline seat, making it discriminatory to charge those obese passengers for an extra seat.

Some disability rights advocates and legal experts say the obesity policies of the Australian airlines are vulnerable to a similar challenge here.

"The Canadian court decision seems a sensible one," says Slater & Gordon principal Hayden Stephens. "All passengers know how tight airline seating is, at least in economy, but for some the seating provided is unrealistic. It's not just about the right of obese people to fly; it's also about the comfort and welfare of other passengers."

No lawsuit or legal challenge has been filed in opposition to obesity-related airline policies in this country to date, according to the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and the airlines. But Robin Banks, chief executive of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, says it is only a matter of time before the fairness of the policies are tested through a lawsuit.

"It's certainly my view that for many people who are obese they would fit within the definition of disability under the Disability Discrimination Act because the condition is often physiological," he says. "The question then becomes whether requiring them to pay for a second seat is unlawfully discriminatory on the basis of their disability. This is going to become more and more of an issue because the size of people is tending to get bigger."

Virgin Blue, Qantas and Jetstar representatives told Take-Off they comply in full with existing anti-discrimination legislation and do everything possible to meet any special needs of customers.

Stephens says an airline that adopted a two-seat-for-the-price-of-one policy or installed a limited number of larger or modified seats to cater to obese passengers might protect itself from a discrimination suit that alleged it failed to provide proper accommodation for all intending passengers.

It's a position that hasn't found much support with the Australian public judging by a recent survey by travel.com.au.

The poll found 53 per cent of people believe obese or largely overweight people should have to buy two economy-class tickets, although respondents were not asked why they felt that way.

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