Friday, April 17, 2009

Fathead Airlines Want to Make It `Us Against Us'

Before we go any further in this flap about airlines requiring that people too wide to fit into an airplane seat have to buy a second ticket for the overflow, it would be useful to get out a yardstick and have a look at how much space 17 inches is. And then remember, most coach seats are 17 inches wide (some are a half inch and in some cases a full inch wider).

United Airlines is the latest of a bunch of carriers to generate heat, and not much useful dialogue so far, in setting a policy that fatter people have to buy two seats if they can't fit into one with the armrest down. The media are all flapping around about it today after some giddy, half-baked stories yesterday implied that United was breaking new ground here. It wasn't. That's the policy at at least eight other airlines and has been for some time.

When I've written about this issue in the past (and it's been around for years), I've been surprised by some of the virulent reaction. I'm here to tell you, folks, there are a lot of fellow citizens out there who hate fat people. And I use the word "hate" precisely. The depth of the animosity is profound; it is uncivilized and foul.

If we had a decent air-travel system that respected human dignity, this would not be so much of an issue. If I may slide into the pulpit here for a minute, let me say that it is in the airlines' gross interests to pit us against us, lest it become -- as it should -- us against them. Because, pace Walt Kelly, we have seen the enemy and it is not us, it is they.

The main reason we are annoyed by our fellow passengers' physical intrusions is that the airlines don't give us enough room for normal occupation of a physical space for long periods of time. A United 747 (United runs them with a whopping 347 seats) has 172 coach seats, 10 across with two aisles, that are 17 inches wide, with 31 inches of legroom. I myself would sooner take a brick upside the head than spend seven or eight hours (or longer) wedged into that kind of space, trapped between also-suffering fellow passengers. Add some dripping water from the overhead and you have a clear violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Incidentally, the airlines are all proudly describing their next-generation strategic plans for prosperity to stock-market analysts in the hopes that the stock-market analysts will do what stock-market analysts really and truly do, which is shill shares. The plan is simple: Shrink the air-travel system to the point where fewer planes are flying more passengers. That is, they are actively planning for a smaller, constricted system in which all of us remain packed in the tightest possible spaces on airplanes on which every cramped seat is occupied.

So this problem of personal space only gets worse, unless we decide that the airlines, and not our fellow passengers, need to be held responsible for providing basic human needs on an airplane. We literally would not allow cattle to be transported in interstate commerce with so little space between them. It's time to ask why we let the airlines carry people of any size that way.


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