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Airline Seat Saga Continues

Regular readers of these pages will recall my previous comments on the recent Canada Supreme Court ruling on the accommodation of severely obese passengers on Canadian airlines (for previous comments click here and here).

This policy resulted in Air Canada now requiring obese patients to present a doctor’s note 48-72 hrs before travel if they wish to be accommodated on two seats (click here for the forms Air Canada requires passengers to fill out – see page 5 of the form). 

While creating more work for doctor’s who have to fill out the form (with rather simple measurements that almost anyone can take) and creating embarrassment for all involved, at least this policy does ensure that large patients are accommodated without extra charge: one passenger – one fair – it’s only fair!

Yesterday, United Airlines took the other view and announced that it would begin charging large individuals for two seats. In doing so, United now joins the other four major airlines (Delta, US Airways, Continental, and Southwest), which have already been charging large travelers for an extra seat.

As expected, there are a host of people who think that this is only fair (which is probably why the airlines can get away with this policy). I have previously made my views on this clear: this policy is discriminating and feeds into the widespread notion that obesity is simply a self-inflicted condition resulting from poor choice, completely avoidable by eating less and moving more.

As long as this simplistic view of obesity prevails, we are still a long way off from treating obesity for what it is – just another complex chronic condition (like diabetes, asthma or heart disease) that results from complex interactions between sociocultural, biomedical, genetic and/or iatrogenic factors in our obesogenic environment.

I have yet to meet someone who “chooses” to be fat.

Edmonton, Alberta


  1. I do not disagree with you on this account but do people choose to get cancer when they smoke, or get diabetes when they eat to much? Of course not but they still continue to smoke and eat. This issue is a very steep and slippery slope. I am 6’4″ tall and I am constantly cramped on an airline for space, should I get extra space for my height, something that I did not choose. What about babies, shouldn’t they get an extra seat when flying? – its not all that safe for a mother to hold a baby during turbulence. My 2 cents.

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  2. I’ve followed your blog for quite awhile and have, for the most part, agreed with you wholeheartedly. But in this situation, I have to side with the airlines. While forcing an obese person to purchase another seat can seem discriminatory, to me it makes sense. Why punish the persons sitting next to an obese person by giving them LESS room? I sure wouldn’t want to be the skinny person sitting next to me, with all my overlap. But, it’s just an opinion. And you know what they say about those. 🙂

    Keep up the great work! I always look forward to seeing you in my Google Reader.

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  3. It’s always interesting to read your thoughtful and reasoned opinions. Thanks.

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  4. I’m sure that United would like us to believe that this is a new policy, but in fact it’s not. In Oct 07, I flew from Edmonton to Orlando and had to purchase 2 seats. I think the thing that particularly bothers me about this whole situation is the idea of the wolf gaurding the hen house. Transport Canada gave the airlines free will to determine the paramters of how this policy would be implemented. I bet some would be surprised to know that the free seat is only available on domestic flights. Additionally, any flights associated with AC Vacations and WestJet Vacations don’t apply either. So, obese travellers are still fairly restricted in our travels, I would say. Finally, the last item that bothers me about this second seat scenario is that obese travallers have to pay the all the fees and charges twice. Airport Improvment, US taxes, security, NAV Canada, etc, etc. On my last trip to Vegas, I paid $200 on fares and $142 for fees/surcharges. How is that fair? I didn’t get twice as much benefit from paying these fees. I didn’t get two passes through the metal detector, I didn’t get two glasses of soda and two packages of pretzels on the plane. Heck, I could even get airport and airline staff to understand why I had two boarding passes, most of the time. In my opinion, the Canadian airline industry isn’t properly trained to handle the needs of obese travellers. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

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  5. I totally agree with you, Dr. Sharma. We need more people advocating for the needs of obese individuals. I agree, too, that I have never met anyone who chooses to be fat.

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  6. Of course people with thyroid, pituitary (etc) problems do not choose to have these problems. But we do know that being fat and obese is generally connected to behaviour, to how one has eaten her entire adult life. Admittedly we learn from our parents and societies, but this does not exonerate the responsiblity of all of us to change our behavoirs that do affect others. People who smoke have despised the idea of having to go outside, and now accomodate this reasonable request. Likewise, it is simply unfair that I have had more than my fare share of flights with people whose bodies are on top of my own. Sorry, but their freedom to eat unhealthily, to not exercise, does affect others and it definitely affected my comfort on many a plane trip. Does this mean I don’t have compassion for them? Of course not and it would be abusrd to collapse the desire to have overweight people pay for the space on transport lines with a lack of compassion. Does anyone accuse obese people of not being compassionate when they occupy two metro seats and a clearly tired person could use a sit down as well? These are the circumstances and people who are overweight need to understand that their actions have consequences. I have seen severely overweight people take back their bodies through regiments of exercise and diet, and saying that this is not the issue is simply false consciousness. For instance, if I have a temper but I yell at my girlfriend in an airplane, can I retort to the steward’s request for me to lower my voice with “But I can’t help it! I have a temper!” Of course I can, but that would be an unreasonable repsonse.

    I am sorry, but there is a need to advocate for accomodating overweight people on flights, but they do need to be economically responsible for their weight as all of us are for ours (to include bagage). I am a bit tired of seeing tiring excuses being made for a condition which is solely that of the individual in most every single case.

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  7. Thank you for writing so sensitively and intelligently about this issue. I can assure you that as a fat person, I am just as dismayed and uncomfortable as my seatmates when flying. Add to that the shame, humiliation, and guilt that accompnaies seating size issues, and you can see that I already pay a high price for my airline seat.

    Airline seating is different for fat persons than for babies or tall persons–it’s reducitve to compare the three. My understanding is that babies are not safe in airline seats; and tall passengers arguably have less impact on the comfort of their seatmates and can find seats with more legroom (see this article for advice:

    But what it essentially comes down to is the belief that obesity is a choice. As someone who has tried at least 5 major diets, is unable to afford weight loss surgery, and has sought both residential and outpatient treatment for Binge Eating Disorder, I am consistently hurt by accusations that I have chosen my obesity. I encourage anyone not familiar with BED/Compulsive Overeating to learn more about it. Here is just one resource:

    There are a lot of extraordinarily intelligent people in this world; we must be able to come up with a better solution to this problem, one that is fair to both large and average-sized travelers.

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  8. As a very short person who frequently gets squashed between large people on airlines, I understand the difficulties large people encounter, but since I pay a fare too, I should be able to have a fair share of the available space, instead I am frequently asked to accomodate larger people without any thought to my discomfort!

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