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.
Share your thoughts below.
To write for Starts at 60 and potentially win a $20 voucher, send your articles to our Community Editor here.