Cramped plane seats make travel unpleasant for any size flier

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Flying back to Washington after spending Christmas with family in Houston, my biggest concern was not security alerts or turbulent air or flooding at Reagan National Airport. It was getting in and out of my airplane seat.

I am not trying to gross anybody out, but I don't fit comfortably in an airplane seat. And it's not that my bottom is too big, either. I have no problem fitting into a car, bus or subway seat or your standard office chair.

But that middle seat in economy class? You could hardly fit Barbie in that.

The Council on Size and Weight Discrimination, a nonprofit organization based in Mount Marion, N.Y., has frequently complained about airlines greedily trying to make a profit by outfitting planes with seats that are too small. But those concerns have been dismissed as the ranting of fat people who just need to eat less.

Not true.

A visual survey of passengers on my flight indicated that only children and frail elderly people had enough seating space. Full-size adults were mashed so tightly that they appeared to be joined at the shoulders, hips and thighs, like three heads on one body.

"Until recently, seat designers have relied on a 1950 Harvard study of train passengers that said that the average adult requires eighteen inches per seat," according to a position paper by the council. "Unlike airlines, builders of new sports stadiums or movie theaters have realized that they need to make their venues fit the populations they serve. Many movie theaters are installing twenty-two inch seats and sports stadiums are building their seats from nineteen to twenty-four inches across."

I measured myself, and, even in middle age, it came out to precisely 18 inches across -- plus or minus a smidgen. And yet, all of it still didn't fit into that airplane seat, which could not have been any wider than 17 inches or so.

With more airlines starting to charge fat people for two seats, I'm wondering whether airlines are installing smaller seats just to make even average-size butts seem bigger. That way, even people with regular rears will end up having to buy extra seats.

"In a free-market economy, businesses are supposed to compete for the consumer dollar," the council says. "The company that provides the best service will beat out the competition. This is true in all industries except the airlines. Instead of making their service more accessible and comfortable, they keep their seats the same cramped size and then blame larger passengers for everyone's discomfort."

You would think that after paying so much for airline tickets and going through all the airport security hassle, there'd be a comfortable seat waiting for you. But, no.

And thanks to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, things will only get worse. Because the terrorism suspect bought his airplane ticket with cash, we have to be wary of using cash, although credit card companies are out to take our money.

Because Abdulmutallab didn't have any bags to check, we must be wary of not checking any bags, although airlines rip us off by charging for checked bags.

In response to Richard "Shoe Bomber" Reid's failed attempt to bring down an airplane in December 2001, we have to take our shoes off for inspection before boarding a plane.

Now comes Abdulmutallab, who is alleged to have sewn explosives into his jockey shorts.

I can hear airport security already: Okay, everybody, off with your drawers. It'll be their way of giving us extra room in the seat.

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