Sunday, 18 July 2010

Obesity in economy class

More than once I have been wedged into the side of my already-minute aeroplane seat, as the giant figure of an obese person sits next to me and forces me into near suffocation and severe irritation.

For some it sounds cruel that I think I have the right to be annoyed when someone who clearly can’t fit into their seat inadvertently overlaps mine with their excess flesh. From the time they sit down, I know for a fact that I will feel every movement they make and will not be remotely comfortable for the entire duration of my trip. This is not a problem if I am flying from Johannesburg to Durban, but I’ll be damned if I have to smile through it for 11 hours when London-bound.

Some airlines have declared that they will prevent very obese passengers from boarding for safety reasons. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the USA, it must be possible to evacuate an aeroplane in 90 seconds and anything that impedes this must be rectified before take-off. Although I am sceptical that any plane carrying more than 10 people can be emptied in a minute and a half, I can sympathise with concerns that an extremely large person could slow the process down. This impediment would frustrate me somewhat if the plane was on fire or I was drowning.

All I say here, though, has been travel from my point of view. But what about obese travellers, themselves?

According to our friends at Health24, clinical obesity is a disability. You wouldn’t open a can of whoop-ass on someone in a wheelchair if it made your flight less comfortable, would you? In fact, the Canadian government has passed “one passenger, one ticket” legislation applicable to all domestic flights, meaning that no one is obliged to buy two seats, even if you take up more than one. In a move designed to protect disabled people, the government included clinical obesity in the ruling. I interpret this as: large people can get a second seat for free.

While this may suit obese passengers, it frustrates those of us average sized peeps as the airlines are forced to charge us more to make up for the free seat given away. Is that fair? Possibly not, but I am happy paying a few ronts extra to make sure that my space is not invaded by someone else’s body – particularly as contorting my 6 foot 1 frame into a space designed for a 5-year-old is an initial challenge I have to face every flight anyway. But the question remains: Should passengers have to do it?

A large part of the medical fraternity sees obesity as a serious and complicated problem and throws disdain on the philosophy that it is all about excess eating and laziness. Dr Ingrid van Heerden, Health24’s diet doc says: “there are definitely obese people who simply don't respond to standard methods of weight loss; it's not just that they've ‘been naughty over Christmas’ and lack willpower.” This means that as much as it is not our fault when inconvenienced on a plane, it may not be the obese passenger’s either.

So what is the solution? Air France KLM, Europe’s largest airline, which flies to Johannesburg and Cape Town, has recently adjusted their policy. Although it is not a prerequisite for boarding, the airline offers obese passengers the option of purchasing a second seat for only 75% of the price. If the plane is then not full on take off, this second seat will be fully refunded to the obese person who chose to buy it. This means that for a discounted fee, all passengers can sit in comfort (if such a thing can be located in economy class), and the expense is only enforced if required – and you hardly ever get a plane where every seat is booked.

I think that’s a pretty happy medium. This means I don’t have anyone’s flesh touching mine while flying, and they don’t have to pay too much for the privileged of not squashing me.

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