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Too wide for the sky

Published: 6:16PM Wednesday May 05, 2010 Source: Fair Go

Reporter: Libby Middlebrook

If you've ever flown in cattle class, chances are you've experienced some kind of discomfort of a plane ride.
There's the lack of leg room, the noisy children, the snoring passengers - not to mention the tiny chairs we're all expected to squeeze into for hours on end. But imagine how you'd feel if another passenger spilled into half the seat you'd paid for, and the airline did nothing to help you?

Jan McComb's flight
Earlier this year, Jan McComb decided to treat herself to a holiday. She headed off overseas to the Australian Tennis Open, flying direct with Air New Zealand from Christchurch to Melbourne.
But her journey there turned into a nightmare. Jan was seated next to a very large man, whose obese body was overflowing into the middle chair she'd been assigned. His mother had been seated on the either side of Jan in the aisle seat, but she refused to swap places, saying she didn't like sitting near the window.
Jan approached a flight attendant, but she wasn't any help either. She told Jan the flight was full, but did promise to come down and speak to the man's mother. But she never turned up.
Understandably Jan was pretty grumpy about all of this, so she wrote to Air New Zealand to complain, thinking she might get a small refund on her flight. After all, she'd only got around half the seat she'd paid for. But the only thing she got from Air New Zealand was sympathy. They said they couldn't develop official policies for seating large people, because that would be discrimination.

So how do larger passengers cope with airline travel? Nobody feels the discomfort of air travel more than passengers like Lynda Finn, a large woman who says sitting in an airline seat is like "cramming yourself into a bucket". Lynda - the author of a book called Largely Happy - says she has sympathy for Jan McComb's situation, but blames Air New Zealand for not providing a range of seat sizes to suit all body types. She says large people should not have to pay more to fly, because that would be prejudicial.

How are overseas airlines dealing with large passengers?
Some overseas airlines make large passengers pay extra for the space they take up.
America's Southwest asks passengers to buy a second seat at the same price. If they haven't and their flight turns out to be full, they get sent off the plane. Air France takes a softer approach, encouraging passengers to buy another chair at a 25 per cent discount. They get that money back if the flight has empty seats.
So how do airlines decide who's too wide for the sky?
In most cases, passengers must be able to fit between the arm rests and buckle up, using only one extender seat belt.

Would Air New Zealand do the same thing?
Air New Zealand believes charging large people more to fly could be discrimination.
The company believes obesity is a societal issue, and they're comfortable with the way they're managing the issue overall to date.
Amazingly, the company says it's not to blame for Jan McComb's horror flight to Melbourne.
It believes the mother should have moved closer to the son, saying it can't control every situation that arises on an aircraft.
But the company has apologised to Jan, and provided her with a free return trip to Australia.

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