A weighty issue – an extra charge for larger airline passengers? 395



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Earlier this year at a ceremony in Hamburg, Germany, the designers of a wider airline seat for fat passengers was the winner in the “Crystal Cabin Awards” in the “Passenger Comfort Hardware” category – and it could not have been timelier.

The self-proclaimed “Cabin Oscars” award was for a seat design that used wasted space at the rear of the aircraft cabin where the fuselage narrows and which is one-and-a-half times the width of a normal seat.

In recent years, and with more and more passengers falling into the “obese” category, airlines have been struggling with the problem. With fuel typically an airline’s greatest expense, carriers have gone to great lengths to reduce the total weight of aircraft loads.

In 2013, Samoa Air became the first airline in the world to implement “pay as you weigh” with the Chief Executive, Chris Langton, describing it as “the fairest way of travelling” and adding: “there are no extra fees in terms of excess baggage or anything – it is just that a kilo is a kilo is a kilo”.

Passengers who book online are weighed at the airport before boarding their plane just to make sure that they haven’t been fibbing. With Samoans regularly listed among the worlds most obese, it was a brave – even controversial – move, but since there is no competition, it was a case of like it or lump it. Samoa Air flies rather small aircraft between the islands.

Only recently, a Brisbane man took Etihad Airways to court saying that he was forced to twist and contort his body for long periods during a flight between Sydney and Dubai because a “grossly overweight” passenger was spilling into his seat, was coughing frequently and had fluid coming from his mouth.

Etihad unsuccessfully tried to have the claim dismissed and the judge said, in her published reasons, that she wasn’t convinced the claimant had no chance of winning. The case will go back to court in December.

Recently, a former Chief Economist with Qantas Tony Webber – who spent seven years in that role – said that overweight passengers should pay a surcharge while skinny people should get a discount on their ticket price, as well as fat people without luggage.

“When the passengers weigh more, or where there is extra weight on the aircraft, that generates more fuel burn and higher fuel costs”, Mr Webber said.

“You’d have to work out the total weight of the baggage and the person and then have a critical weight, say 90 kilos or 100 kilos, above which you’d impose a surcharge”.

But, he says, while he was with Qantas, the airline gave “almost no consideration” to his proposal – which, he admits, would be “humiliating” and “awful” for some passengers, and which would “clearly have some impact on the brand of the airline”.

Some 60% of Australians are overweight, according to the Australian Medical Association. According to researchers at Melbourne’s Monash University, more than five million Australians are obese.

Qantas and Virgin have what they call a “comfort seat” arrangement which allows passengers to book the seat next to theirs so that a passengers could raise the armrest. Qantas somewhat coyly says this idea is aimed at “customers of size” although anybody can book a “comfort seat”.

A comfort seat costs slightly less than the normal seat because neither airline has to levy the taxes and other surcharges applicable to a normal seat and you will earn frequent flyer points for it.

Despite saying that it has no intention of introducing a surcharge for fat passengers, in one documented case two years ago, an overweight passenger was left behind at Townsville by QantasLink after a complaint by another passenger.

“I got on board and headed for my seat but I saw this guy in the seat next to me and honestly thought, how will I physically fit next to him? I have sat next to plenty of fat guys on planes who work in the mines, but this guy was an exception”, the complaining passenger said.

“I felt really sorry for him but I do want to point out this is a common problem that local airlines refuse to address and leave other passengers to handle”, he said.

In the USA, some airlines force overweight passengers to pay for two seats if they are unable to buckle their seatbelts without the use of a seatbelt extender, while a legal battle in Canada forced airlines to give an additional adjacent free seat to those who couldn’t fit into one seat.

According to the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties President Michael Cope, airlines need to address the issue.

“The bottom line is that planes were built in an era when people were not as overweight as we all tend to be now. It is a grey area of discrimination and in some cases airlines could be in breach”, he said.


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Russell Grenning

Russell Grenning is a Brisbane-based former journalist and retired political adviser who began his career with the ABC in 1968 in Brisbane and subsequently worked on the Brisbane afternoon daily, "The Telegraph" and later as a columnist for "The Courier Mail" and "The Australian". He worked for a string of senior Ministers in the Federal, Victorian and Queensland Governments as well as in senior executive public relations positions, including Assistant Federal Director, Public Relations, for Australia Post, Public Relations Manager for the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Principal Adviser, Corporate Relations, for the Queensland Law Society.

  1. Maybe it will help overweight people set goals re losing weight.

    1 REPLY
    • sounds good but in reality it’s not going to work, are you going to tell some one with Prada-Willi Syndrome sorry lose weight or you have to pay more, Being a big lady I always arrange with the airline to pay for an extra seat for my comfort or fly business class

  2. If they don’t charge overweight people more, then perhaps they could let lighter people take a greater weight of luggage to compensate.

    25 REPLY
    • And where and when would these weigh-ins take place, Alec? I agree it would make it more equitable, but it would be downright embarrassing and insulting as well, for the overweight and obese people. I’m not one of them, by the way, but I can feel their pain here!

    • No one to blame but themselves for being obese,just have to stop stuffing food in their mouth have watched them eating in food courts,Macka’s biggest meal they sell, donuts, thick shake all in one meal & their trolley full of crap…

    • Judy Chappell ever stop to think that some of these ‘obese’ people are so because of health reasons, medications and genetics. Not all because of your reasoning

    • I can just see all the skinny people with huge bags, and the fat people with tiny bags lined up to board. Ridiculous suggestion

    • This discrimination argument is just as relevant to the skinny people, as they are being made to help pay for the additional fuel required to get the extra weight into the air, as the rules stand now.

    • I agree Robyn Rees my mum was over weight but not with eating lots of food, but because of medical problems I use to feel so sorry for her with what she went through and insults from people who did not know her. I will always feel sorry for over weight people as no one wants to be like that. So I will never pass judgment on over weight people

    • You wouldn’t think lighter people would need as much luggage. They should just make sure the plane isn’t over loaded.

    • Robyn Rees, totally agree with you. Sometimes it’s the medication that a lot of people are on that courses weight problems but you know what, I’m thinking I would rather be over weight than have a nasty spirit which gushes out of my mouth like some people with their hateful opinions. You can often fix fat but you can’t fix stupid.

    • Very, very few obese people get this way because of medical problems – fact! It is very uncomfortable sitting next to an obese person on a plane and it must be even more so for them. By the way, I’m not exactly skinny myself although not classed as obese and I’m not mean spirited either.

    • Robyn Boyd why wouldn’t lighter people need as much luggage? Surely it depends on where they’re going and how long they’re going to be away, not on their weight!

    • Wanda Wylie Roigard How very true. Wouldn’t most of us be taut ,trim and terrific if we could be? I was on a plane next to a really rude doctor following my heart operation. I weighed about 73kg and that was heavy for me. He told me I needed to lose about 9 kgs and go to gym. I wanted to tell him to go to hell. Rude sanctimonius prick.

    • Julie Charlton Many people become obese due to asthma and the medications they’re on, also due to arthritis and other reasons. Although some people might,, we don’t all sit on a couch all day and gorge. I have also sat next to very obese people and it’s very uncomfortable when they take up one and a half times the seat and sleep with their wings out but sometimes there is another reason too.

    • Judy Chappell, this is an unkind remark and not true. Sure there are those who stuff themselves, but they often do not put on weight. Many obese people have type two diabetes, not as a result of obesity, their weight gains are the result of their diabetes. Just a little more understanding and compassion would be appreciated. Part of the airline problem is small seats to start with with no leg room. Make the seats and seating room a little more generous and you solve the problem. Try travelling on Japanese airlines if you are Caucasian, the seating is child size. There is basically no one size fits all solution, but understanding and helpful seating plan would help.

    • Many people are overweight because of medication, and many because they are unable to exercise because of a medical condition, and many because of an eating disorder.
      I don’t know my opinion on the flight issue, but I can assure you that many, many people are overweight due to medical issues – meds, mental health, physically unable to exercise (heart condition, disability, chronic pain, spinal injury, arthritis, diabetes etc), intellectual disability causing unwillingness to exercise and overeating, the list goes on.

      Judy, you’re an ignorant pratt, and worse, you’re plain nasty.

    • Kris – only a very small percentage can blame medical issues on weight gain – the vast majority can only use physiological excuses

    • Antidepressants also put weight on people and it would be heartless to suggest they cease taking them just because their body image doesn’t fit the ideal set by the diet police.

    • Robyn Rees a very small percentage of people are over weight because of medical problems, some medications make you a little overweight but not obese. Unfortunately people eat too much, eat too often and eat the wrong type of food. But… this isn’t about picking on obese people – its a fact that airline seats are too small for many of our people and those that end up sitting beside them often get squashed into only a portion of the space they have paid for. And it must be horrible for the obese person as well, knowing that they are spilling over into someone else’s seat and being so squashed up. Something needs to change.

  3. I feel for those poor people, but having been squashed many times, yes, there should be a fee, hopefully it will help them seek help and set goals.

    5 REPLY
  4. I had a panic attack on a plane when a huge man oozed himself between me and the aisle. Its a real issue. Maybe planes need to install bariatric seats like we now have in hospital s. And have a total weight allowance per person? ?

  5. What if the person is overweight because of a disability and not due to lifestyle choices?

    1 REPLY
    • We are involved with people with disabilities every day. A disability doesn’t cause obesity.
      What you put in your mouth does.

  6. of course it has nothing to do with cramming the maximum number of people into the minimum amount of space in conditions it would be illegal to transport livestock

  7. It’s discrimination no no no and I am not overweight

    7 REPLY
  8. Yes, it’s got to work the other way, do skinny passengers get a discount,
    Or can they bring on more luggage??

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