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OP-ED: Treat Passengers of Size with Dignity

Last week, Vilma Soltesz died after she was denied her seat on a flight because of her weight. Soltesz was planning to fly home to receive treatment for diabetes and renal disease, but she passed away in Hungary before she could get home. Her husband has filed a lawsuit, but the two airlines named in the suit (Delta and KLM) are claiming that they could not physically accommodate Soltesz.

Though the details of Soltesz’s ordeal remain in dispute, her story—and the experiences of countless other flyers who’ve been denied boarding due to their size—raises a larger debate: Is it fair for airlines to treat passengers of size differently than customers who fit comfortably (or not so comfortably) into diminutive seats?

The standard policy on many major airlines is that larger flyers must buy a second seat when they can’t fit into a seat with the belt fastened and the armrests down. Seat-belt extenders are sometimes provided by airlines, but still, that belt’s got to be buckled, per Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. Some airlines offer discounts on the second seats for full-figured flyers—for instance, Air France offers “passengers with a high body mass” a 25 percent discount on the second seat that they are required to buy.

Twenty-five percent discounts are not the solution to the problem. Nor are any discounts short of the full 100 percent price of the second seat, because no traveler should ever have to pay extra because a plane seat doesn’t fit his or her body.

Take former Qantas chief economist Toby Webber’s disturbing counterargument as evidence of why not. Webber told ABC News that thin people should receive discounts on plane tickets, and bigger people should have to pay more, claiming, “When the passengers weigh more, or where there’s extra weight on the aircraft, that generates more fuel burn and higher fuel costs.”

Webber’s argument is offensive to sentient, sensitive human beings. Travelers aren’t baggage. They’re not meat to be weighed and slapped with a sticker price according to the scale. If we go in that direction—if we clear a path for airlines to treat paying people like boxes and bags (as if they don’t behave in this manner enough already)—then we all lose.

There are two thoughts here: Webber wants to charge people per pound; the airlines want to charge per seat. But Webber’s bloated argument exposes the inherent callousness in treating people differently based on body mass. People should be charged per person, no matter what. Anything else is barbaric.

Perhaps some passengers of size “made themselves that way” and should face the consequences, as so many people like to argue. But, while this is a very judgmental way of thinking, personal responsibility is beside the point. The real point is that human dignity is worth more than the price of a plane seat. I would pay a little more for my plane ticket if it meant that another person was not humiliated or shamed because of his or her size. Would you?

Share your opinion in the comments. As always, we ask that you keep your comments polite and constructive.

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