Overweight? United Airlines may charge you extra

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We all know that you can't take heavy luggage on a plane anymore without being charged. But United Airlines, in an attempt to rain on the parade of the "you can have your cake and eat it, too," crowd, has just announced that people packing extra pounds may pay more for their ticket as well.

They have three new rules, as they mention on their web site. You will pay for an extra ticket or be forced to upgrade where you'll have more room (or be exited off the plane if you refuse) if:

  • you're unable to fit into a single seat in the ticketed cabin.
  • you're unable to properly buckle the seat belt using a single seat belt extender
  • you're unable to put the seat's arm rests down when seated.

It'll be interesting to see what the public thinks of this, but as for me, I'll weigh in on the issue by reluctantly admitting that I think it's the right thing to do. And I say that as a fairly beefy guy who could benefit from dropping 30 (and probably) 50 pounds.
I flew twice last year (not on United), and I'm confident that I would have to gain massive amounts of weight before being in danger of being called-out by United Airlines. But, boy, if I ever get to the point where I'm told I'll have to upgrade or pay for two tickets, I'll be sad for my bank account, and I may be initially outraged and embarrassed. But I have to also think that later, I might be grateful and go see my doctor or visit my neighborhood gym. I'm often trying to exercise more and eat better, but what a wake-up call that would be.

In any case, if an overweight person is spilling over into the next seat onto another passenger, or if they have to take up two seats, one can't blame an airline -- especially in this economy -- for wanting to charge them for two tickets. And it's hardly fair for someone next to a large man or woman to sit in complete discomfort during a flight and pay the consequences of that person eating too much pizza and fast food.

That said, I do understand that while we're all equals, we're really not all born equal, as far as the scales are concerned. Genetics play a big part in whether we look like Brad Pitt or the size of three Brad Pitts put together. I'm sympathetic to an obese person who desperately craves the idea of being thin more than eating Thin Mints. And it must be maddening when all you want to do is travel from Point A to Point B, and suddenly you're being told that you have to pay more to do so -- or else.

Maybe the airlines don't have money, but it's not like its stocky passengers do either.

That said, the airlines have the edge here. They own the plane, after all. And as The Chicago Tribune reported, United instituted the policy because last year, they had over 700 complaints from the person sitting next to an over-sized passenger. The new policy, incidentally, applies to tickets purchased on or after March 4, 2009.

The great thing about the airline market, at least right now, is that there are still choices for the obese airline passenger. A spokeswoman at American Airlines was quick to tell WBBM, the Chicago radio station that first reported on United's decision, that she is pretty certain that they had never asked a passenger to pay for a second ticket, and that they were always extremely creative about finding a solution if a heavyset person needed special accommodations.

(Take that, United.)

And, of course, one could always take a train and hope that the practice doesn't spread there (er, no pun intended.)

But ultimately, I do think United Airlines has the right idea, and I'm okay with that, just as long as they don't start asking their passengers to step on the scale next to the counter.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist, and a bit stocky, despite having written a book called C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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