Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Should the obese be treated as disabled by airlines?

New York Times News Service filed this interesting piece about what he terms the war of the armrests -- the plight of very overweight airline passengers. For this blog the operative question raised by the piece is: Should obese people be accomodated as having a disability?

The technical answers appears to be no. The ADA doesn't apply, airlines point out, the Air Carrier Access Act is their law. And the act doesn't require, for example, providing two seats to a passenger who can't fit into one.

The other side argues obesity should be accomodated just like other disabilities. "'It's not a lifestyle choice or a social choice,' said Joseph Nadglowski Jr., president of the Obesity Action Coalition, a Florida-based lobbying group. Nadglowski added that airlines 'make accommodations for others with other health conditions,' so why not the same for the obese?"

That the law doesn't apply currently is a non issue for me. The real question is should it? Obesity seems to me to be a disability as defined by the ADA. (Personally I'd say a good starting point would be having the ADA apply to airlines.) The airlines choose the size of their seats to maximize profit, which of course is understandable. For the airlines to argue that they shouldn't have to provide a larger seat to a larger customer that can't fit in one seat doesn't seem that different than a shop owner arguing that they shouldn't have to build a ramp because stairs are cheaper and therefore better for their business. The law doesn't tolerate that second scenario any more.

But enough of my opinion. My question for you is should very overweight airline passengers be accomodated as having a disability? Comment!


At 10:55 AM, Anonymous Doug H. said...

As American waists expand this becomes an increasingly relevant issue. I'm not sure a "one size fits all" approach works here (sorry for the bad puns, but, like Hostess Ho Hos, they're hard to resist).

There are certainly folks who are obese because they simply eat too much. There are also, certainly, people who are obese, or just plain large, due to genetics. Nobody would call Yao Ming obese, yet I can't imaine he could sit in a single, coach airline seat.

Perhaps the right approach is airlines charge additional faire for passengers who require additional space, unless that passenger has some sort of "genetically oversized" dispensation from the ADA.

As someone who spends a lot of times on airplanes it is not fair that normal sized passengers suffer, being squished by obese passengers attempting to fit in a normal seat. People who exceed certain size limits should have to sit in seats that can accomodate them, and whether the airlines are allowed to charge extra could be determined by whether the reason for their size is attributable to an ADA recognized disability.

At 1:39 PM, Blogger darrenh said...

Good points, doug h. I respect your opinion as someone who does travel by air a lot. But consider this. Disability is disability. I don't see how you get there being pertinent. For example, you're loaded drunk and run off the road and hit a tree and end up a wheelchair user. Your disability is a result of your own poor choices. Are you some kind of second tier disabled person not entitled to full accessibility? Nope.
Also pertinent is that the airlines are driving the size of seats to maximize capacity. Why couldn't there be a number of larger coach seats for just such a situation if you will, at no extra cost. If no one needs them, they can go to someone else. Kind of like a handicapped (hate that word) parking spot. I need a landing area to get my son out of our van. The wheelchair lift requires it. But I don't have to pay more for it.

At 3:06 PM, Anonymous Doug H. said...

I agree with your comments regarding wheelchair access but I'm not sure it correlates to obesity. It's true that how a person gets to a disabled condition should not be taken into account regarding the services he or she gets, but we need to be careful about what we define as true disabilities.

A quadripaligec is disabled whether she got there from an at fault, drunk driving accident, a non self-inflicted gunshot or a disease. But obesity? I doubt 50% of the public agrees that this is a disability worthy of an ADA designation. I do not think medical science has advanced to a point where we can be positive about the root causes.

You say how a person reaches a state of disability does not matter, and I agree if it's a true disability, but what if an airline passenger drinks to excess before boarding a flight and is unconscious? No airline will allow that passenger to board, let alone give him a recliner to lay on in his unconscious state. Yet, drinking to excess can be attributed to the disease of alcoholism. Are airlines being insensitve to passengers with this disease?

Our society needs to be careful about regulating and classifying conditions before an adequate medical understanding of their cause is known. We do not fully understand all the genetic, physical and mental functions that correlate to obesity, but we can be sure there are people who are too large to fit in an airline seat without consuming a portion of the seat next to them, simply because they like to eat, and eat too much. Look at Jerrod from those subway commercials... If obesity is a disability was the cure subway sandwiches?

To slide even further down the slippery slope, coach airline seats must be very uncomfortable for folks over 6' tall. They're not terribly comfortable for those of us who are shorter. Should airlines be made to provide a separate seating area with more leg room for taller passengers? And charge regular, coach prices? It's not fair taller passengers are cramped, but life is not fair. The goal of American society should not be absolute equal circumstances for all. Taller people have an advantage when watching parades and a disadvantage when flying on an airplane. If we won't guarantee seat comfort based on height we certainly should not based on girth, especially since girth is typically controllable and height is not.

Many folks are addicted to nicotine and smoke many cigarettes a day. All domestic U.S. airlines have banned smoking on all flights. Is nicotine addiction a disability? Food addiction?

Best to err on the side of caution until we fully understand the science behind these behaviors. Laws are very hard to undo once in place.

At 2:42 PM, Blogger chandra said...


my one word answer is 'yes'. my wife who was a twiggy, is now obese..and we suffer during air travel, as only we know.

if u have the time meet her at :]

warm wishes


At 11:51 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think if a person is obese then they deserve to be comfortable like the next person but i don't think it is a disablity and not all obese people eat a lot but they get it from their genes people always think thay obese people stay in the kitcen snacking i know plenty of people and i have a few in my family that is obese and they are working and going to school and married and have kids ut not DISABLE and ther airlines need to really think about everybody and not just medium and small ppls and big ppls need love too..

At 5:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I look at the issue from an impersonal perspective.

On an aircraft the space and weight of a payload (i.e. passenger plus baggage), as well as the distance travelled are the parameters which determine the total cost of flying.

I therefore feel that a passenger should be charged according to the objective utilization of these resources.

My reasoning has nothing to do with discrimination, political correctness nor hurt feelings.


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