Airline Travel

Lean times at United

April 17, 2009: 2:59 PM ET

fatplaneI've been thinking a lot since yesterday about United Airlines' plan to charge plus-sized people more for their flights from now on. It upset me so much that I went out and had a 2000 calorie dinner.

I'm not fat, you know, but I do have big bones. What if some anorexic flight attendant decides that the line between fat and burly no longer exists? I don't need two seats, unless they shrink their size again. And who's saying they won't? I remember when you could sit in a coach seat and recline it a bit and be almost comfortable. Now there's a deathmatch fight for any available armrest, the space allotted to you is a vertical coffin, and the angle of recline is about 5 degrees or a quarter of an inch. Even that is too much, since the way they're spaced front-to-back has shrunk, too. Last month there was a guy in the seat in front of me eating a large bag of salami practically in my lap. He didn't even offer me any.

At the same time, relatively slender people have rights, too. I was riding on a Southwest flight not long ago. I had purchased the Business Select option, where for $15 dollars or so you can board earlier than the rest of the crowd. So I got on and selected the front row, aisle seat. Another guy got on and took the window. Right as the door was closing, some behemoth, maybe 6'3", 320 pounds puffed onto the plane, looked at us and said, "Is this seat taken?" He then plopped his 1/6th of a ton between us and fell promptly asleep. It was not a comfortable flight. He snored, too.

The bottom line on our bottoms is this: As a nation, we're getting fatter even as the space assigned to us on airplanes is getting smaller and smaller -- as their margins shrink too. What is to be done? We're not going to be getting thinner, I don't think. Airplanes aren't going to be getting any more widebodied to deal with our wide bodies, either.

Here's my suggestion: Coach-level service, larger seats, 150% pricing. That is, create a section of the airplane that has bigger seats, but not as nice as Business or First, serve no food, offer no amenities, kill the footrests, even. All you're offering is more butt space as your butt heads into space. Some have to be there. Others may choose to be. The price is way less than Business but way more than coach. It's a middle ground that recognizes the Airlines' need to make a profit, large people's need to fly, and the normal-sized individual's right to some level of comfort in this world.

Premium Coach is a step in the right direction. But it's not quite good enough, not for folks with really big bones.

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