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Jewish World Review June 24, 2002/ 14 Tamuz, 5762

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Consumer Reports

Fat fliers pick bones with airlines over engorged fares

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Just about everyone gets a turn at discrimination-induced outrage in Ornery America. This week it's "people of size" -- otherwise known as fat people -- who take up too much space on airplanes.

Beginning Wednesday, Southwest Airlines plans to start charging double for people whose girth consumes more than one seat. Fat people are furious; civil-liberties lawyers are drooling; skinny people are skipping lunch.

This is one of those cases where everybody's right and everybody's wrong all at the same time. Fat people are right that the airline's policy is discriminatory; civil-liberties defenders are probably right that making fat people pay extra just because they're fat violates the spirit of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

And airlines are certainly right that they ought to be able to charge more for people who consume more space. If you order two meals, you pay for two meals no matter how hungry you are.

Likewise, though space is a less tangible commodity than food, it is no less a "product" if you happen to be in the airline business. Airlines sell space. If you need more than one space to accommodate your generous person, then you have to pay for it.

All logical, reasonable and, in a free market, fair.

But, and this is a big but, so to speak. The problem isn't just fat people, who account for a majority of Americans depending on whose body mass index you use. Under new federal standards, as many as 65 percent of Americans are "obese."

The problem is AIRLINE SEATS ARE TOO DADGUM SMALL!! Is that clear?

They're too small for anyone who ties his own shoelaces. They're too small for relatively petite people like me. Even seated in an aisle seat, which I always lobby for, I am miserable in coach class and never travel without a Valium just in case the coffin walls start closing in. I can't imagine what a three-hour flight must be like for someone who happens to carry an extra 20 to 30 pounds (not exactly obese) or who stands 6 feet tall.

On a recent flight, the two men in my row were both 6 feet 5 inches tall. They had to prop their chins on their knees and sip their tranquilizer through a straw. If fat people have to pay more for taking up extra space, should tall or large-but-not-fat people have to pay less because the airline industry refuses to acknowledge that human beings do not come in single, compact sizes?

Leg room is an oxymoron. There isn't any. As for seats, most in coach class measure 17 inches wide, give or take a fraction. (You can compare airline seat widths and pitches, airline jargon for leg room, at http://businesstravel.about.com/cs/airlineseatmaps/)

To put that into perspective, my office chair seat is 19 inches wide with a 22-inch spread between the armrests. I enjoy about four inches of wiggle room, which means that a 17-inch seat gives me exactly two inches of wiggle room. People who are normal to heavy, or just larger than my 5-foot-6 frame, have exactly zero wiggle room.

And the airlines say fat people are whining? Please. Fat people are fat. They're not evil; they're not intentionally overweight; they're not criminals. The airlines, on the other hand, are sadistic punishers who treat their clients like pre-burger material en route to the slaughterhouse and they deserve to be punished for it.

The answer isn't to tax people for being fat, but to accommodate the market, which is large and growing. I'm not a defender of obesity, but I am a defender of sanity, and the airlines fail the test.

Market logic may support making large people pay more for using more "product," but the same logic dictates that airlines should treat their clients with respect and consideration. I say, Fat And Skinny Unite (FASU) and stop flying until the airlines give us bigger seats.

It's the least they can do for customers who, for the privilege of being miserable, endure long lines, subject themselves to body searches and pretend not to notice the radical Islamist-looking dude who just breezed through security while Random Granny had her walker disassembled for closer inspection.

See you on I-95.

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