I am absolutely appalled at United Airlines’ decision to start charging extra to passengers that don’t fit in their seats. If we are all purchasing passage from one location to another then it is the airline’s responsibility to provide seats of varying sizes for customers of varying sizes. Not doing that is discriminatory enough, but actually charging larger passengers more is horrendous.
Interestingly, the policy itself, when not looked at next to larger issues (like discrimination) and when one accepts the premise that something like this is okay, is internally, rather reasonable. It states that the airline will do whatever it can to make sure that passengers are accommodated before being asked to buy an upgrade or another seat. For instance, they will be relocated, if possible, to two seats next to each other and not charged extra. Moreover, if two seats are purchased, then baggage can be distributed amongst the two seats rather than cost more money.
That doesn’t stop it from being discrimination, and here’s why. I will set out two premises to this argument, the first based on something in the policy and the second based on society’s erroneous perceptions of weight.
First, the issue here is not about something like, “your weight means you take more fuel and you need to pay for that.” Why? Because if possible, large passengers will be given two seats without being charged. Thus, there weight is fine. So what’s the issue?
The issue is when you become an impediment to someone else’s flying experience. The open line of the new policy states, “For the comfort and well-being of all customers aboard United flights.” (my emphasis). This refers to fat people being in others’ seat space by not being able to put the armrest down (a requirement United has instituted). Thus, the criteria for determining if you should pay for a second ticket or be moved to another seat with an open one next to it is that size is a problem for other passengers.
Now the second premise. Let’s assume - though I contest that it’s not true, and at the very least not always - that weight is something controllable by each fat person (by every person, actually). That is, it’s fat people’s fault that they’re fat and because they can do something about all the space they’re taking up, they should - and if they don’t, they should pay more. Now, I don’t think this is true but at the very least, it’s untrue in the way our society perceives it to be so. Nevertheless, I’m willing to accept it as a premise of this argument for the sake of thinking like the majority of people considering this policy.
So, if you can control fat and the problem is that you are impeding other passengers’ riding experience then this is discrimination because of all the other people that can control issues that impede other passengers’ travel comfort. For instance, what about smokers?
Smokers choose to smoke. People who stink like smoke and whose clothes reek give me (and others) headaches and make me feel nauseous throughout the flight and even some time after. Shouldn’t they be required to sit in a special area that’s wrapped in plastic and prevents their smell from getting out (or people with terrible B.O. who could elect to shower)?
And what about people who are sick and coughing and sneezing throughout the flight? Arguably, sick people can’t control their sickness, but should they be forced to buy cough drops or nasal spray? At the very least, I don’t want to sit next to sick people and touch the armrests that they’re touching (better fat flowing over the armrest than snot on it, I say!). I don’t want them hacking on me and making me sick - and unable to sleep with all the noise they’re making (at least you can get comfortable against fat people). Sick people are a much larger impediment to flight comfort than fat people.
Smokers and sick people impede my ability to travel comfortably. Why aren’t they being asked to move to more open areas or buy extra seats away from other people?
Because we accept discriminating against fat people - that’s why. Of course, our society loves discriminating against smokers, too, so I wouldn’t be shocked to see a law one day against them even getting on planes smelling like smoke but at this stage, the rules just hate fat people.
And if weight is something that, generally speaking, cannot be controlled then this discrimination is even more outright and blatant.
How should we react to this new policy? How do you feel about it? Have you ever been discriminated against at the airport. Read the policy and discuss it.
As an historian, Jay understands the degree to which our aesthetic judgments are shaped by our cultural surroundings, and he has studied and written about the importance of rights, respect and acceptance for all people. Jay is a member of the Association for Size Diversity and Health.