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April 16, 2021

United Airlines to charge obese passengers for extra seat

By Jason Buckland, Sympatico / MSN Finance

“Oh, you gonna let it all hang out. Fat-bottomed girls, you make the rockin’ world go ‘round.” – Freddie Mercury/Brian May, 1978

In a move sure to ridicule the obese by consequence, United has become the latest major airline to implement a policy forcing overweight passengers to buy an extra seat if they cannot fit into a standard one.

And while they are by no means pioneers of the second seat rule – Southwest started it in 2002 – United’s newest flight restriction seems to feature a few cruel traits not seen before.

Under the rules outlined on United’s Canadian website, passengers who “are unable to fit into a single seat in the ticketed cabin; are unable to properly buckle the seatbelt using a single seatbelt extender; and/or are unable to put the seat’s armrests down when seated” won’t be allowed on the plane unless they pony up for an extra ticket. Or, if one isn’t available, they’ll be forced to take a later flight – whereupon they will still be subjected to the second seat charge.

Now, for one, even if you throw out what must be the terribly humiliating social procedure of being eyed-up by an airport ticket agent at United’s counter, this would still mean it has to be determined if your girth is too girth-y prior to you boarding the plane.

How this is done isn’t made clear, but what's left but to make obese customers take the veritable Walk of Shame to a display passenger seat to conclude, once and for all, if their humps, their humps, are fit for the friendly skies? Would a wise-cracking carnie operating a novelty weigh-scale inside the terminal make everyone more comfortable?

United also takes a stubborn approach to the extra seat controversy, whereas other major airlines appear to show compassion. American, for example, uses a case-by-case approach, preferring to move that passenger to an area next to another, existing empty seat. “I don’t remember us ever having to impose such a(n obesity) charge,” an American spokesperson told CBS 2 Chicago.

Of course, you can leave the peacemaking effort here to Canada, a place where our sense of politeness is only outweighed by our sense of empathy.

Obesity in Canada is now legally considered a medical condition and customers, unlike in the U.S., may request an extra seat from airlines free of charge. Should passengers be “disabled by obesity” – as of Jan. 9, 2009 – one doctor’s note is all they’ll need to obtain a free seat, according to the WestJet and Air Canada terms of service.

If nothing else, the news of United’s policy change offers up a fresh spin on the controversy for obese people, human rights activists and, maybe above all, airline passengers.

There’s bound to be two camps on this one, and both are right. It’s humiliating, if not expensive, for overweight people – subject to enough public ridicule already – to be forced to buy an extra seat based on their size and physical girth. Naturally, though, it’s also unfair for someone paying thousands for an airline seat to be sandwiched by someone pouring out of the seat next to them.

So, I certainly don’t have a right answer on the matter. Do you?



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Gordon PowersGordon Powers

A long-time fund company executive, Gordon Powers now heads up the Affinity Group, a financial services consulting firm. Gordon was a personal finance columnist for the Globe & Mail for many years, has taught retirement planning...

Jason BucklandJason Buckland

The modern-day MC Hammer of money, Jason can often be seen spending cash that isn’t his with the efficiency of a Wilt Chamberlain first date. After cutting his teeth as a reporter for the Toronto Sun, he joined the MSN Money team with...