Posted April 16, 2009 by Nicki Krawczyk
In a prime example of virtually inviting people to kill the messenger, United Airlines has instructed its employees not to allow overweight passengers (those who cannot sit in one seat with the arm rests down and/or cannot use the safety belt with a single extender) to board unless they purchase an extra seat.
Furthermore, according to United’s newly posted policy, if no extra seats are available, passengers will have to either pay to get upgraded (if there’s room in that section) or wait for the next flight with two available seats.
Now, other airlines already have similar policies; both American and Southwest are on the books as having the right to require purchase of a second ticket. But unlike both of these airlines, if there is an empty seat available on a plane, United won’t switch the affected passenger to a seat next to the empty one so that he or she won’t have to pay double. Perhaps this is to avoid inconveniencing another passenger already seated next to this empty seat? But doesn’t it also inconvenience (and cost) the affected passenger? And wouldn’t there have to be switching anyway, if they’re going to place this passenger next to an empty seat to charge him/her?
Obviously, this is a tricky issue no matter which airline is involved. Does forcing a passenger to pay double penalize them for being overweight? Or do charges like these accommodate (also-paying) customers’ rights to comfort? It will be interesting to see how this plays out. It’s easy to imagine people thinking they’re getting last minute deals and then not actually being able to board the plane for lack of an extra seat. You can’t really plan a 3-day weekend vacation if you don’t know when you’ll get a chance to board. It’s also easy to imagine passengers being very displeased with the front-line employees who have to enforce this policy.
It’s worth pointing out, I think, that seats are already so closely grouped that airlines are actually able to charge more for seats that have more legroom. Could part of the problem be that seats are just too small to accommodate enough people nowadays? I have no answers at all. However, I can tell you that I’ll be watching very closely to see exactly how this plays out.
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