The Customer is Always Right, Unless He is too Fat

The news was broadcast by Chicago’s WBBM Newsradio 780 radio:

Newsradio 780 has learned that United has instructed its customer service representatives at O'Hare International Airport ticket counters and gates to be extra vigilant beginning Wednesday for passengers they deem to be overweight.  Those unable to comfortably fasten a safety belt with one extension or sit comfortably with armrests down will be denied boarding unless they purchase an extra seat, even if they can be placed elsewhere in the aircraft next to an empty seat. If no empty seat exists, the passenger will be forced to take a later flight.

According to the story, this new policy, which is only now coming to general attention after being very quietly adopted earlier this year, is the result of customer complaints. The only exception is for couples as long as neither one of them complain.

A Personal Experience

I have mixed emotions on this one. On the one hand, I have been squeezed into a window seat for several hours while a remarkably obese woman (I have no clue how she squeezed into that middle seat) dripped sweat on me and the somewhat luckier woman with the aisle seat for the duration of a very full flight. On the other hand, I didn’t whine about it. Airline propaganda aside, traveling coach is not a luxury experience—it never has been—and one has to accept that lamentable fact. Would my travel experience have been easier and considerably less damp if my rotund rowmate had been forced to purchase two seats? Sure. No question, but what if there had been two seats, and one of them was empty? Why not simply let her take that empty, adjacent seat? Problem solved, right? Not so fast.

That brings us to the sticking point: Those unable to comfortably fasten a safety belt with one extension or sit comfortably with armrests down will be denied boarding unless they purchase an extra seat, even if they can be placed elsewhere in the aircraft next to an empty seat.

Here is where the mixture of emotions assumes the clarity of a JiuzhaigouValley lake: It is one thing to demand a double seat on a full flight, quite another to demand the same when the plane is empty. Moreover, it’s wrong. What is the justification? Passenger comfort? Perhaps, they do cite customer complaints. Improved service? I doubt it. Money? You can hear the bell of the cash register, can’t you?

Consider the process: Find a vulnerable group (the obese), obtain a reason to discriminate that will stick (customer complaints), and hit them up for double the fees that everyone else pays. Then, when you are called on it, describe as the “industry standard.” This is precisely what happened and it is ludicrous. It’s like the bus company in Montgomery claiming that putting blacks at the back of the bus is “the industry standard.” This is discrimination, pure and simple. It is wrong for United and it is wrong for any other business to do it.

The Bottom Line

This isn’t about the heavy passengers. Should they lose weight? Yes, but not to please United or anyone else. Their own health depends on it, but that is a personal choice nonetheless. This is about the idea that the obese—or anyone else for that matter—can be targeted for this kind of treatment and how that is a sad commentary on how far we have to go as a civil society. Since obesity is a medical condition, why not also charge people with heart issues extra in case the crew needs to break out the defibrillator? How about people with circulatory problems: On long flights, you could charge them a “deep vein thrombosis premium” in case they lose a leg and decide to sue the airline. Maybe charge more for blind or deaf people since they might need extra attention…the list goes on and on and anyone with eyes, a mind and a heart can see it is simply and profoundly stupid.

If you want a model in how not to treat your customers, yet again, we can count on the airlines to come through. As a business owner, you have an obligation to all your customers, not just the trim, athletic ones. Some will need more attention than usual, and you are obligated to accommodate them as best you can. You have to deal with issues on a case-by-case basis. By requiring the purchase of two seats even if the passenger can be accommodated by an available empty seat, United has discriminated against a whole class of passengers, regardless of circumstance, and that is morally unacceptable and legally suspect. I am looking forward to the lawsuits that this decision will spawn, they should be very instructive.

Personally, though, I have four words that would solve the issue entirely: Bigger Seats in coach!