Readers solve the problem of oversize air travelers.

Readers solve the problem of oversize air travelers.

Readers solve the problem of oversize air travelers.

Science, technology, and life.
March 2 2010 8:24 AM

Fat vs. Tall: Plane Common Sense

Readers solve the problem of oversize air travelers.

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In the last two weeks, Slate readers have posted more than 600 comments on the problem of oversize air travelers. Some passengers are too fat to fit in a standard plane seat; others are too tall. The original question presented for discussion was: "Would you give the fat guy next to you the same deference as the tall guy behind you? Why or why not?" But your answers went far beyond that. Yesterday I posted your 10 best insights on how to think about the problem. Today we'll honor your 10 best ideas for solving it. The envelopes, please:

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

1. Research seat sizes before you buy. If you're long or wide, go online and find out how big each seat is before you reserve it. Several commenters recommended seatguru.com, which lists seat and leg-room dimensions for each row, section, and plane model.

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2. Advertise seats by cost per inch. Grocery stores show you the cost of each item per unit. Cereal B may cost 50 cents more than Cereal A, but if the box has 20 percent more volume, it might be a better deal. Why don't sites such as Expedia, Travelocity, and Orbitz show fares the same way? Many Slate readers said they'd gladly pay an extra $20 to $50 or more for bigger seats. Why not quantify the value of the extra space so airlines have an incentive to offer it?

3. Demo seats. Why did Southwest flight attendants let Kevin Smith board his plane before they checked to make sure he could fit between the arm rests? This is a recipe for needless humiliation, notes Bea. Airlines have plenty of used-up seats lying around. Put them in an enclosed area in each terminal and invite passengers to try out the arm rests and seat belt before they board. We do this for suitcases. Don't we owe people the same courtesy?

4. If you have extra space, switch seats with somebody who needs it. Several commenters said they've yielded their seats to give tall passengers more room. E Shay says she traded seats with a 6-foot-4 man who "was stuck in the last row that could not recline." Another flier, Ashley, gave her exit-row seat to a long-legged guy. One common complaint in the forum was about short people in exit rows. "There is nothing more frustrating than seeing a short person in the exit row bragging about how much room [they] have to stretch out while I cram my legs into a regular seat with my knees going numb," writes Jennifer. Another reader, lma, proposes that airlines "arrange seating so that larger passengers sit next to smaller passengers. … I'm a small person and I would be more than willing to move and sit with a larger passenger if that maximizes utility for everyone on the plane." That kind of generosity would help fat people as well as tall ones.

5. Pay people to switch. If generosity doesn't inspire enough seat-switching volunteers, why not try money? When airlines overbook a flight, they offer travel vouchers to find "volunteers" who will switch to the next flight. Why not do the same with encroached seats? "Allow passengers under a certain height and weight to volunteer themselves for open placement in any seat on the airplane, to defuse otherwise uncomfortable and awkward seating arrangements, in exchange for a discounted airfare," proposes a 5-foot-4 flier who calls himself This is me. Another reader, Monica French, suggests that a discount or voucher for each encroached passenger could be funded by a surcharge on the oversize passenger.

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6. Give tall people the first option to buy leg room. Many airlines assign or sell seats with extra leg room, such as bulkhead and exit-row seats, to frequent fliers or on a first-come basis regardless of size. Instead, how about offering these seats, at the same price, to tall people first? "Hold the exit row at the gate, find the people who need that room the most that can still do the function of opening the exit row door and then charge them $50 for it," proposes Scott Hansen, a 6-foot-6 traveler. "I'd do it every time." Another reader, Matt, points out that driver's licenses, which are already required for boarding, can be used to verify which passengers are tall enough to qualify for this first right of purchase.

7. Put some wide seats on each plane and give wide people the first option to buy them. "Most fat people don't need a FULL extra seat—they need an extra 2 or 3 or 6 inches," observes CJ Martin. "That option is not available at a proportional cost." Hansen proposes "2 or 3 rows on the plane that have 2 wider seats instead of 3. Allow them to be booked online, but put in a disclaimer that if the seat is needed for someone who needs it more, then you can be switched to a regular seat. Once the flight has been seated, have them charge and extra half fare to anyone in the wide seats."

8. Reconfigure planes to allot more width or leg room per passenger. This would involve a cabinwide redesign. Rob proposes the leg-room version: "If the first four rows were taken out in a plane seating 3 on each side, that would be 24 people. Redistributing the space gives everyone else about 4 extra inches, and only costs about $30 more per person per flight." Greg Kopczynski runs the math on a lateral version: "Giving 4 more inches in seat width would require removing one seat from every 5-seat row, resulting in a 20% decrease in seats (and presumably a corresponding increase on per-seat cost of 20%)." [Update, March 2: Actually, a 20 percent decrease in seats translates to a 25 percent increase in per-seat cost. The plane would fly only 4/5 the original number of passengers, and therefore each passenger would have to pay 5/4 the original fare.] How many people would pay that premium? Run some focus groups. And bring the bigger seats so participants can try them before deciding.

9. Nonreclining sections. If half the passengers want to recline, and the other half don't, why not separate them? GD suggests putting the recliners on one side of the aisle, where they can all lean back like a chain of dominoes without impinging on travelers who want to sit upright. The nonreclining section would be marked on the seating chart when you choose your seat online.

10. Sideways-adjustable arm rests. "Put sliding armrests and a bench-style seat in a row or two," proposes dj, "and charge by the extra inches the armrest must slide for those that can't fit in a normal seat." This sounds crazy, but the more you think about it, the more sense it makes. Each adjustable row would be nonreclining. Each wide person could use as many inches as he needs, without having to buy a whole extra seat. Two wide people could split a row that would otherwise fit three thin people. Or a thin person could volunteer to sit next to a wide person and yield 1 to 4 inches in exchange for a discount or voucher. Two volunteers yielding 3 inches apiece would produce 6 inches of width for somebody who needs it. The whole arrangement could be worked out in online seat selection. And if airline executives don't think they'll get enough takers, they should read comments like this one: "I'll happily leave my seat upright and/or concede a few lateral inches...for a fee." Volunteers are standing by.

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