Seating Disorder

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There was some hoopla a few weeks ago about Southwest Airlines, and how it double-charges fat people because it hates them. Then I read a press release at www.Southwest.com decrying the news media’s “sensationalizing” of the issue, so I figured I should look into it and set things straight and make some jokes about fat people.

The controversy began when an internal memo escaped the confines of Southwest headquarters, which are in a shack on the outskirts of Barstow, Calif. (This is also where Southwest keeps its plane.) The memo was to remind employees of a 22-year-old policy stating that customers must pay for as many seats as they occupy, and that ticket agents, if necessary, should remind customers of this fact, preferably in a loud voice and using the expressions “jumbo” and “tons-o’-fun.”

The difficult question is what constitutes “occupying” a seat. Most plus-sized folks do not literally take up an ENTIRE second seat; the ones who do realize it and are already in the habit of buying two seats or flying on under-booked flights or shipping themselves as cargo. But Southwest’s policy applies even to those occupying a portion of a second seat. Presumably, this would also apply to bony women who take up residence on both armrests and do not give them up no matter how forcefully you elbow them, or people who decide the legroom in front of YOUR seat belongs to them, too.

So how much spillage constitutes “occupying”? Where do you draw the line? What, should Southwest put a box at the ticket counter, and you have to stand in the box, and if you don’t fit completely inside it, you have to pay for another seat?

YES. That would be GREAT. I would spend hours at the airport, just watching people get in the Fat Box.

I am of two minds about this issue, which is two more than usual when it comes to issues. On the one hand, fat people generally know they are fat — though you see some whose choice in clothing indicates otherwise — and don’t need to be told again. It would be humiliating, not to mention expensive, to be asked to buy another ticket. And how much would they pay for the second seat? Everyone knows airline ticket prices are chosen randomly, and that no two people on any flight ever paid the same amount. Which random fare would apply to the second seat?

Also, let’s face it, airline seats have been getting smaller over the years. Even normal-sized people do not sit comfortably. But the press release at Southwest’s Web site says that on average, only six seats per flight represent a profit for the airline. If they were to replace, for example, nine seats with six seats, “we would have to double our fares to maintain our profit margin.”

I’m pretty sure this is a big fat lie — let us pity the poor airlines who can’t seem to turn a profit! — but whatever. The point is, the airlines are not going to make their seats any larger or more comfortable until they get some competition in the field of high-speed travel. (Hey, inventor of the jetpack, where are you?)

But on the other hand, holy CRAP, would you mind STAYING IN YOUR OWN SEAT and QUIT CROWDING ME?!! One time I was at the awards ceremony for the Sundance Film Festival, and the man next to me was very, very fat, so much that I literally had to sit one-cheeked on my chair because half the seat was occupied by this other man. I finally got fed up and said, “Mr. Ebert, if you don’t mind….”

No, I kid. It wasn’t Ebert. But my point is, if you’ve ever been in a situation where the person next to you was spilling into your chair, you can understand the reasoning behind Southwest’s rule. They want all their passengers to be comfortable. So again, I think the jetpacks are the way to go.

It was the regulars at the Eric D. Snider message board (no longer extant) who brought this issue to my attention. I intentionally didn't read the thread before writing this column, so as to avoid stealing anyone's ideas.

I love the expression "tons-o'-fun." I believe I picked it up from "Tommy Boy."

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