Weighing In: The Ongoing Debate Over Extra Airline Seats for Larger Passengers
Weighing In: The Ongoing Debate Over Extra Airline Seats for Larger Passengers - The History of Airline Seat Sizes
Airline seats have been shrinking for decades, with the average width decreasing from 18.5 inches in the 1970s to just 16.5 inches today. This gradual downsizing reflects larger economic and competitive pressures facing the airline industry.
In a nutshell, airlines are squeezed between rising costs and falling ticket prices. Jet fuel prices have surged over the years, while new low-cost carriers like Southwest and JetBlue have intensified price wars. Faced with razor-thin profit margins, airlines have sought new ways to cut costs or boost ancillary revenue through fees. Shrinking seat sizes kills two birds with one stone, packing more passengers onto each flight while also creating a new product to upsell.
This trend began in the early 2000s, as traditional hub-and-spoke airlines struggled to compete with upstarts offering cheap no-frills service. Legacy airlines like United and American began removing rows of seats in economy to fit extra passengers. In the past, reducing legroom or width was unthinkable – air travel was marketed as a glamorous experience. But post-9/11, with airlines bleeding cash, all bets were off.
By 2015, major U.S. airlines had cut seat pitch (the distance between rows) to as low as 30 inches in economy. Even premium cabins weren't immune – some business class seats slimmed down to just 20 inches wide. Airlines argued this allowed more flexible configurations for lie-flat beds, but some passengers felt squeezed.
The shrinking economy class experience was initially tolerated since fares stayed low. But passenger frustration boils over by 2016, as "Slimline" seats with less padding become standard and basic economy fares proliferate. Airlines seem to take "one step forward and two steps back," giving an inch of legroom before paring seat width.
While the FAA rejected calls for minimum seat sizes in 2017, the backlash continues. Congressional hearings excoriated airline executives about cramped seating, albeit with no new regulations. Passengers became more vocal too, through petitions and social media outrage over airline densification.
What else is in this post?
- Weighing In: The Ongoing Debate Over Extra Airline Seats for Larger Passengers - The History of Airline Seat Sizes
- Weighing In: The Ongoing Debate Over Extra Airline Seats for Larger Passengers - Who Gets to Define "Too Large"?
- Weighing In: The Ongoing Debate Over Extra Airline Seats for Larger Passengers - Charging for Extra Seats: Discrimination or Practicality?
- Weighing In: The Ongoing Debate Over Extra Airline Seats for Larger Passengers - Potential Solutions and Airline Responses
- Weighing In: The Ongoing Debate Over Extra Airline Seats for Larger Passengers - Passenger Opinions on Both Sides of the Issue
- Weighing In: The Ongoing Debate Over Extra Airline Seats for Larger Passengers - The Intersection of Obesity and Air Travel
- Weighing In: The Ongoing Debate Over Extra Airline Seats for Larger Passengers - What This Debate Says About Societal Attitudes Toward Size
Weighing In: The Ongoing Debate Over Extra Airline Seats for Larger Passengers - Who Gets to Define "Too Large"?
When it comes to airline seats, who has the authority to determine which passengers are “too large” to fit comfortably? This question cuts to the heart of the ongoing debate over seat sizes and whether carriers should be mandated to accommodate all flyers. It’s a complex issue with reasonable arguments on both sides, tied up in sticky questions of discrimination, safety, and human psychology.
Many advocates urge airlines to use maximum empathy and restraint when judging if a passenger is too big for one seat. Gate agents receive sensitivity training to avoid confrontation and only remove passengers as an absolute last resort. Limiting humiliation should be the priority, they argue.
Others counter that sympathy can’t supersede safety – if an overweight flyer truly can’t lower their armrests without overlapping a neighbor, they must purchase an extra seat. Airlines have responsibilities to ensure all passengers can evacuate easily in an emergency. Allowing cramped seating that hinders movement down the aisle seems negligent.
Underlying the debate is the fact that weight and size are highly subjective. Airlines shy away from concrete definitions, instead empowering individual gate agents to eyeball the situation. This opens the door to potential discrimination, conscious or not. Two agents may assess the same body type differently based on unconscious bias.
The most objective approach is using armrests as the deciding factor – if a passenger can’t lower them without leaning on another seat, then they likely need to buy an extra ticket. But even this method has flaws, as armrests are at different heights on various aircraft.
Airlines try to remove agents’ personal judgement by relying on the word of passengers themselves. The recommendation is that plus-size travelers should proactively purchase an extra seat if they feel unable to fit comfortably in one. But self-assessment leaves room for error too.
Some argue a better solution is minimum seat size regulations, preventing airlines from incremental shrinkage. But airlines protest that government oversight destroys their ability to configure planes efficiently. And ongoing congressional debates have failed to produce new rules so far.
Weighing In: The Ongoing Debate Over Extra Airline Seats for Larger Passengers - Charging for Extra Seats: Discrimination or Practicality?
The debate over whether airlines should charge for extra seats is complex, touching on issues of discrimination, safety, and economics. At its core lies a tricky question: is charging larger passengers for a second seat unfair targeting, or a practical necessity for airlines?
Advocates argue additional fees are blatantly discriminatory against plus-size travelers. By immediately categorizing larger flyers as needing extra space, airlines show sizeist attitudes that shame and stigmatize. It suggests bigger travelers are an inconvenience, their bodies a problem requiring special accommodation. Charging overweight passengers double unfairly singles them out compared to thinner flyers seated comfortably nearby.
Airlines contend they don’t charge by size per se, but rather occupancy – anyone who encroaches on more than one seat gets asked to purchase the extra space. They claim consistency not discrimination; if a petite traveler places a large bag on the middle seat, for example, they would also have to pay for the obstructed room. Charging for true footprint, not body type, seems equitable.
Critics counter that occupancy policies still disproportionately target larger travelers, as moose knuckles rarely usurp two seats the way hips might. Airlines recently shrunk average seat width to 16.5 inches – significantly less than the 18 inch width of the average adult male hip. This densification means even moderately curvy bodies could struggle to stay contained. Does the fault lie with wider travelers, or the airlines who designed cramped seats?
Plus-size passengers describe humiliation when asked to purchase extra seats, especially if the request comes publicly at the gate. However, airlines argue delicately addressing the issue during private check-in is exceedingly difficult. Many travelers book online and never engage an agent beforehand. Waiting until the gate risks confrontation, but broaching the subject earlier proves logistically tricky.
Which brings us to the core airline argument – safety. Carriers have an obligation to ensure all passengers can quickly evacuate in an emergency. If a larger traveler truly can't fit their body fully within their own seat space, they may impede egress for row-mates during an evacuation. Airlines get hammered for lax safety, so allowing literal "spillover" seems negligent. Charging for extra seats means fewer passengers are squeezed into uncomfortably tight quarters.
Yet how many larger flyers actually prevent smooth emergency egress? Studies on airplane evacuation do not find obese participants markedly reducing aisle mobility. Airlines likely overestimate this risk partly due to bias. Plus, evacuations with masked passengers during COVID demonstrated safety was possible even with middle seats occupied – somewhat undermining the safety rationale.
Weighing In: The Ongoing Debate Over Extra Airline Seats for Larger Passengers - Potential Solutions and Airline Responses
When outrage over shrinking airline seats reached fever pitch around 2015, carriers scrambled to stem public ire without sacrificing valuable cabin density. Various “solutions” emerged, though some seemed more PR spin than substantive fix.
Low-cost airlines like Spirit held firm that extra fees were non-negotiable. Cramming more passengers on each flight allowed them to keep base fares tantalizingly cheap. Airlines weren’t forcing anyone to fly Spirit, PR reps noted; customers chose them for basement fares despite barebones service. Charging for overweight passengers was essential for their business model.
Meanwhile legacy carriers shifted strategies based on discomfort level. United moved swiftly to avoid Congressional oversight, devising innovative seatbelt extensions to prove larger flyers could be safely secured. American rolled out a concierge-type service for plus-size passengers needing special assistance, though extra seat charges remained. Delta took a PR-forward approach, with a viral marketing campaign celebrating all body types.
Some airlines tried technical innovations to squeeze more space from existing cabins. JetBlue and others explored designs for staggered armrests that could overlap when not in use. Other carriers considered seats that slid inward to yield extra inches during boarding then returned to save legroom midflight. But reconfiguring entire fleets proved cost-prohibitive.
Most U.S. airlines settled on subtle upsells instead of wholesale changes. Basic economy and premium economy emerged, letting passengers pay to upgrade seat size inch by inch. Preferred seating fees allowed escape from rear cabins with even less space. Loyalty programs now let elites purchase extra legroom seats for cash. Airlines give flyers options to customize space, defusing tensions.
Overseas, some carriers and regulators took a blunter approach. Air Canada recently mandated retired larger seats must be replaced with equivalently sized models. Proposals in the UK and EU would establish minimum seat dimensions. But in the hyper-competitive U.S. market, airlines jealously guard decisions over cabin configuration.
Weighing In: The Ongoing Debate Over Extra Airline Seats for Larger Passengers - Passenger Opinions on Both Sides of the Issue
Those who support airline policies argue carriers have valid economic and safety reasons for their practices. A middle seat encroached upon by a spilling-over passenger destroys comfort for three travelers, not just one. They see charges for extra seats as a fair way to optimize limited space, allowing more people affordable travel. Larger flyers aren't entitled to usurp two seats for the price of one, they contend.
Many also trust airlines to make rational choices that keep passengers secure. If squeezing larger bodies into single seats truly blocked aisles and exits, carriers would surely halt the practice rather than court disaster, they contend. Airlines set seating configs based on extensive tests by aviation safety experts, who care more about evidence than emotions.
Yet for plus-size passengers, airline policies feel anything but rational or fair. They describe insulting double standards - almost no one scolds petite travelers to purchase extra space for their lithe frames. They feel discriminated against for physical traits beyond their control. Why must only fuller-figured flyers pay double to exist comfortably?
They also challenge the safety rationale. If evacuations are so endangered by overweight bodies, why do demonstrations never use obese test subjects? Real-world evacuations with fuller planes have happened without issue post-COVID. The safety risks seem exaggerated.
Many also articulate the unfairness of airline seat inflation running only one direction. As widths shrink from 18 to 17 to 16.5 inches, do petites get partial refunds for unneeded inches? Do airlines offer to switch a size 2 woman from an economy to a child’s seat for less money? Of course not - the inch-by-inch densification only ever costs more, never less.
Plus-size passengers acknowledge carriers jamming more seats aboard aids affordability for all. But they question why the burden of densification falls entirely upon fuller-figured travelers. If thin passengers lose comfort from seat shrinkage too, why shouldn't they also occasionally get bumped to economy plus against their will? Targeting only bigger bodies for upsells seems unjust and feeds stigma.
They also point out the sizable market share larger Americans now represent - CDC statistics show over 70% of the population is overweight. Alienate plus-size flyers, and airlines lose a huge swath of business. Some predict backlash and boycotts if policies remain insensitive.
Weighing In: The Ongoing Debate Over Extra Airline Seats for Larger Passengers - The Intersection of Obesity and Air Travel
The experiences of plus-size air travelers spotlight how policies around weight, from tiny airline seats to extra baggage fees, intersect with larger societal attitudes and stigmas about bigger bodies. As U.S. obesity rates have climbed over the past 20 years, fuller-figured flyers increasingly contend with spaces and rules that fail to accommodate them.
Many articulate feelings of shame when asked to purchase extra seats or when seatbelt extenders don’t fit. They describe humiliation as other passengers ogle and whisper about their bodies. Filmmaker and plus-size blogger Virgie Tovar recalls sobbing in an airplane bathroom after a demeaning interaction with airline staff who insisted she buy two seats despite fitting in one. The experience encapsulates the stigma around obesity.
Policies like basic economy exacerbate this stress. Charging extra for full-figured travelers to choose seats or check bags means those who fly the cheapest face heightened anxiety about whether they'll fit. Women detail being forced to parade down the aisle hunting for space while other flyers leer and sneer. Such experiences amplify the exhaustion of navigating a world not built for their bodies.
Obesity intersects with other marginalized identities too. Plus-size people of color face compounding stereotypes, as racism also pervades aviation. Overweight black passengers describe exaggerated scrutiny from airline staff convinced they won't fit. Hearing racial slurs whispered when seated next to thinner white travelers compounds pain.
Plus-size disabled passengers or those with mobility issues encounter further barriers finding sensibly priced adjacent seats with room to maneuver. Those needing special assistance downsize relate harrowing experiences of brusque handling by airline staff.
Such obstacles mean plus-size travelers often pay more to fly but get less respect. Many recount feeling "like a problem" instead of a paying customer due to sizeist attitudes. They argue more sensitivity training could ease stigma until policies catch up. Blogger Jes Baker proposes airlines hire plus-size customer experience reps to address body diversity issues.
Weighing In: The Ongoing Debate Over Extra Airline Seats for Larger Passengers - What This Debate Says About Societal Attitudes Toward Size
The charged debate over airline seats for larger passengers reveals deep societal biases and stigma surrounding body size. While issues like safety and economics factor in, reactions often expose sizeist attitudes that perpetuate shame.
Plus-size travelers describe a world that refuses to accommodate them. Airlines densify seats under the guise of competition, but only fuller figures feel the squeeze. Brands design public spaces ignoring ergonomics of larger bodies. The message is that obesity inconveniences others.
When airlines demand overweight passengers pay for extra space, it implies larger travelers are not entitled to exist comfortably in shared public environments. They are treated as nuisances who usurp more than their fair share. This mindset stems from cultural fatphobia.
Popular media, especially reality TV, perpetuates stereotypes of overweight people as lazy, sloppy and lacking self-control. Doctors peddle myths of fatness causing poor health despite research showing weight alone doesn't determine outcomes. Diet companies preach fat-shaming ideas of "good" and "bad" foods.
Thus plus-size travelers enter airports facing biases. If they request seatbelt extenders, nearby passengers scowl in annoyance or make underhanded comments about waiting to taxi. Seeing larger bodies as inherently problematic reflects social conditioning.
These attitudes explain why airlines consistently shrink seat sizes but only force some passengers to pay double. Though all travelers lose inches, public empathy only flows one way. When airlines nip legroom or serve miniscule meals, few demand petites get kicked out of exit rows to make more space. Only the overweight face consequences.
This dichotomy shows we unconsciously excuse micro-aggressions against marginalized groups. Too often, the solution for discomfort lands on those already facing stigma rather than critiquing the systems causing problems. Plus-size travelers symbolize a blind spot in equality movements.
Raising awareness matters since obese people cannot easily change to "fix" social exclusion. Shorter travelers cannot grow taller on command, just as larger ones struggle to shrink against biology. Wider seats accommodate different body types, benefiting all.