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graphic Going Offby Christopher Elliott

Continental mulls policy changes for large fliers

  • How XL fliers can cope with XS seats

    (CNN) -- Travelers of all sizes, take heart: Continental Airlines is considering a policy change that could affect everyone, whether they're overweight or just the hapless passengers stuck between two plus-sized tourists.

    According to sources at the airline, the carrier's reservationists would be directed to block off available seats next to extra-large travelers at no additional cost. If an unused seat isn't available, the airline would let them take the next flight without incurring a penalty. Portly passengers could also expect some price breaks from Continental if they couldn't take a standby flight and needed to book a new ticket.

    Continental officials are discussing changing the way they deal with overweight passengers but have made no final decisions, says spokeswoman Sarah Anthony.

    "We've never had a written policy on this," she says. "My understanding is that there have been group discussions on this issue, but there's nothing coming up for review yet."

    More room, less discomfort

    If approved, the policy would be good news for travelers like Bob Moore. On a recent Continental flight from Denver to Newark, the system administrator from Tinton Falls, New Jersey, had the misfortune of getting trapped in what can only be described as a human vise grip.

    His original flight had been canceled for mechanical reasons, leaving him on the next plane out, which was completely full. He ended up in a dreaded middle seat.

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    "The two individuals sitting in the aisle and window seat were, to say the least, large," says the 6-foot-1, 250-pound passenger. "Between the three of us we easily tipped the scales at 800 pounds -- no exaggeration. My seatmates, who were traveling together, continually passed papers and comments back and forth. When dinner arrived, we all struggled to eat, elbowing each other and apologizing.

    "As we approached Newark, the pilot announced that we would be put into a hold pattern because another jet had stalled across the landing runway, assuring us it would be 10 or possibly 15 minutes. An hour later we were finally cleared for landing."

    Perhaps Continental heard enough stories like Moore's. If put in effect, the policy would go far beyond what the government requires or what Continental's competitors offer.

    United Airlines, for example, makes extra-large passengers buy two seats and doesn't allow them to change tickets without incurring a $75 penalty, which is standard for domestic carriers. Delta Air Lines has more or less the same policy, but will let generously proportioned passengers take their chances on another flight without getting whacked with a surcharge. Ditto for Northwest Airlines.

    Candy Harrington, who edits "Emerging Horizons," a newsletter for disabled travelers that's based in Ripon, California, says the airline industry's rules are based on the fact that being overweight isn't generally considered a disability. What's more, the Air Carriers Access Act of 1986, which addresses passenger access, doesn't stipulate that carriers have to offer "more ample" seating for travelers with any kind of a disability.

    One size does not fit all

    Could Continental's decision mark a shift toward a more compassionate airline industry? Not everyone thinks so.

    "Making a passenger pay extra for airline seats seems highly unfair," says Paula Lozar, a technical writer from Santa Fe, New Mexico. "After all, we don't charge tall people more for sticking their knees in the back of the person seated in front of them, or offer discounts to small people who take up less than average space.

    "I feel that airlines should provide accommodation for people of all sizes and shapes -- and if they weren't so intent into fitting all travelers into the same Procrustean seat, and cramming the maximum number of bodies into a confined space, they could certainly do so."

    She's got a point. By demanding that obese travelers cough up more money for an extra seat, airlines are singling out customers with a weight problem. It's a policy worthy of the mythical Greek giant Procrustes, who stretched or shortened captives to make them fit his beds. If carriers were to be perfectly fair about it, they should consider treating travelers no different than cargo: anything that's outside the "norm" -- too tall, too wide, too heavy -- should be subject to a special handling fee.

    Security expert Terry Riley took that argument one step further a recent column on, in which he suggested passengers should pay by the pound. "A weight-based fare is, well, fair, and it isn't going to reveal anything about our oversized fellow travelers that our eyes aren't already reporting," concluded the Santa Cruz, California, psychologist.

    Suggestions aside, it's going to take more than a lone policy change from Continental to make flying more tolerable to the portly passenger -- or to any passenger, to hear travelers talk about it.

    "I think the issue of being seated next to a large traveler would be moot if the airlines put real-size seats for real-size people on planes," suggests Ellen Tietjen, a Raritan, New Jersey, traveler. "Since the airlines are not giving way by trying to cram as many people into a long metal cylinder as possible, and since flights for most people are under three hours, I believe that we just need to keep a level head and deal with it."

    I agree that we're a long way off from removing all of the prejudices from airline policies regarding oversized passengers, but I also believe that Continental's proposed changes represent a commendable first step.

    If Continental approves such revisions, will other carriers follow its timely example, or will their policies remain as dated as a biplane?

    The outcome is in a holding pattern.

    How XL fliers can cope with XS seats
  • Fly during off-peak times when flights are less full. You'll avoid having to buy an extra seat.
  • Travel with someone. Being seated next to a friend or family member means you can lift that armrest without being embarrassed or getting into a fight.
  • Move. Remember, as soon as the cabin door closes, you can claim any available seat -- or cluster of seats -- within your class of service.
  • Ask for help. In the past, gate agents used to upgrade tall or overweight passengers who needed more space. It still happens, but not as often.

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