Law in Contemporary Society

Airline Policies Discriminating Due to Body Size Need Reform

A Brewing Storm

That air travel is degrading is something to which most people can relate, but an increasing number of americans are being exposed to a different indignity: restrictions on travel due to their size. The issue was the subject of recent publicity when Southwest Airlines unseated director Kevin Smith on a full flight. However, some airlines have had policies addressing this issue for nearly thirty years. In this period there is no indication that there has been any progress or significant change in how these situations are handled, despite the fact that there is an increasing number of incidents and Americans are getting bigger.

Current Policies and Rationales


Most major carriers have a policy addressing this issue. Nearly all policies require larger passengers to purchase an extra seat in advance but will refund that ticket if the flight is not full. If the passenger has not purchased an extra seat and the flight is full, that passenger will not be allowed on that flight. The current policies leave complete discretion of enforcement to the gate and cabin crew which leads to inconsistency of enforcement. Additionally, problems are often not identified until the person is already seated, and frequently only at the prompting of the adjacent passenger.


The most common reason cited for implementing these policies is for ensuring the comfort of all passengers on the flights. Some airlines also claim safety concerns and non-airline proponents cite the cost of the added weight of larger passengers. The first two rationales are valid, while the third is not.

First, the airlines argue that they are selling not just transportation but space. A single ticket passenger is only entitled to use the space bounded by his seat and is entitled to the full use of that space without encroachment. The airlines argue that it is unfair to allow encroachment into the space of another passenger, especially when that encroachment interferes with the space and comfort of that passenger.

Second, the airlines contend that the policies are necessary so other passengers do not become trapped behind a larger passenger while evacuating a plane, and so the larger passenger himself has enough space to negotiate safely the space between rows and exit the plane quickly. It is unclear how true this is, or how much the purchasing of two seats affects this.

Finally, the argument about added cost because of added weight is not valid. While extra weight does cost extra fuel, the added cost generated by a larger person on a commercial airliner is negligible.

Effects of the Current System

When enforced, the current system does protect the interest of adjacent passengers, but it has ancillary effects of embarrassment, employment discrimination, and restriction on ability to travel of those against whom it is enforced. Being singled out for body size in a public place is an embarrassing experience and is made worse by the fact that a problem is often not identified until the passenger has been seated, at which point the only resolution is to remove the passenger from the plane. The policy also can create employment discrimination. Many jobs require air travel. Since these passengers are required to buy an extra ticket, their travel costs can be nearly double those of other potential employees. This policy also restricts the ability to travel freely. It makes last minute travel often impossible, especially during busy seasons and on busy days of the week such as Monday and Friday. Additionally, it makes travel contingent upon the actions of others.

Proposed Alternatives

Make All Seats Bigger

Airlines could increase the size of all seats by a few inches. In addition to reducing or eliminating the need for a discriminatory policy, it would provide added comfort to other customers who feel restrained by current seats, but this would be difficult to implement. First, the majority of commercial airliners are a narrow-body design with only a single aisle. Increasing seat size in these planes would necessarily mean fewer seats, in some planes 33% fewer. Second, this would increase the cost of all airline tickets, harming those who do not require seats larger than those currently provided. Thirdly, it would significantly reduce passenger capacity of the the national fleet requiring more airplanes to maintain current transportation levels.

Make Some Seats Bigger

It is possible that airlines could increase the seat size of just a few seats on each plane, and price those seats in a way commensurate to their impact on the number of seats removed. Airlines have done similar things by adding rows with extra leg room to accommodate taller passengers. This policy likely would be the most viable. Airlines say the current policies affect fewer than 1% of passengers, so a change that affects only a fraction of the seating may be sufficient.

Government Mandate

A final alternative is for the government to mandate that airlines cannot have such discriminatory policies. However, this policy would lead to unsatisfactory results for most parties. If airlines chose to install some bigger seats, they could not require larger passengers to sit in them. If they installed all larger seats, the same problems listed above would arise. If they changed no seats, everyone would be unhappy. This solution would be imprecise and unpredictable.

Call for Action

Whatever airlines decide to do, they must act. Not only is it important that airlines discontinue an embarrassing and ineffective policy, but they must act to accommodate the ever increasing size of Americans.

-- By PeterCavanaugh - 24 Feb 2010

Most of this material could be edited down significantly: the problem can be stated quickly, with reference to the published accounts on which you are drawing. Time spent dealing with insubstantial justifications is wasted: a business's desire to avoid disputes with customers even if that means declining some custom needs no particular justification.

What needed to be discussed, and receives no discussion, is what legal principles you have to support your call for action. Airlines are no longer comprehensively regulated in their market relations with passengers, and such regulation as exists is almost all for the airlines' benefit. There is no obligation on the airlines, so far as I know, to carry any passenger at any price, and so long as they observe the requirements of relevant federal civil rights law, which has nothing to offer to people discriminated against on the basis of body size (unless that body size qualifies as a disability), I'm not sure where the legal leverage is to be found.

That political leverage comes from the increasing weight of average Americans is doubtful, given the substantial public derision directed at "overweight" people. If the airlines choose to place additional charges on those who cannot fit within a double-extended seat belt or between the uprights, people who are presently paying extra money to check their bags are unlikely to intervene.

So, in the end, I'm surprised that you think anything is going to happen, and I think it might be helpful to take another look at explaining more clearly why.


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r5 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:14:24 - IanSullivan
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