A Philosopher's Blog

Charge the Large?

Posted in Ethics by Michael LaBossiere on August 24, 2009

In a somewhat controversial move, some US airlines have implemented a policy of charging large passengers extra. The gist of the policy is that if someone cannot fit comfortably in a normal seat, they will be required to purchase a second seat or upgrade to business class. This policy mainly targets obese people, although it would presumably also apply to other large folks.

While some have accused the airlines of simply trying a new scheme to make money, the airlines have defended this policy by asserting that large passengers “infringe” on the comfort of other passengers and point to various complaints made by passengers about this problem.

As of now, this practice is legal in the United States. Her neighbor to the north has a different policy: Canada considers being morbidly obese to be a disability and hence large passengers are entitled to an extra seat at no extra charge. Since this is an essay on ethics, the key issue here is whether or not this practice is morally acceptable. I contend that it is and will defend my view with the arguments that follow.

When assessing the morality of this action, one relevant point to consider here is what the airline is selling when it sells a ticket. If the airline is selling a single seat, then it is selling (or rather renting out) a specifically sized area. If someone exceeds that area, then they would need to buy more space. To use an analogy with time, if I rent a car for a day, but use it for two days, then I would obviously owe more for that extra day. If I refused to pay for that extra day, then I would be, in effect, stealing the car for a day. Intuitively, stealing is morally unacceptable. If the analogy with time holds, then the airlines are in the right to charge more and passengers who infringe on others would be stealing space. As such, it should be concluded that it is morally acceptable for the airlines to require larger passengers to purchase the extra space that they use rather than allowing them to steal it from other passengers.

My point is also supported by the fact that the airlines sell their business/first class seats at a higher price than the economy/coach class seats. Obviously, the first class passengers are getting transported to the same destination as everyone else on the flight. As such, they are not paying more for the actual transportation from one airport to (hopefully) another. What they are paying extra for is more space (plus perhaps a few extra amenities). So, if more space costs more, then large people should have to pay more if they need the extra space. Returning to the analogy about time, larger passengers who infringe into the space of other passengers would be like people who want to pay for one day’s rental of a car, yet keep it for two days. Obviously, if they need the car for two days, then they should rent the car for two days rather than one. Likewise, if someone cannot fit into one seat, then they would need to purchase enough space for their needs.

The point can be made even stronger by changing the analogy slightly. Since the larger passenger is infringing into the space of his/her fellow passengers, then the analogy would be to a person who needs to rent a car for two days but rather than paying for a second day s/he decides to take someone else’s rented car to use on the second day. This would clearly be a case of theft (unless the other person consents, of course) and hence would be morally unacceptable.

Such an intrusion can also be seen as a violation of the other passengers’ rights. After all, the passengers around the large person have paid for their seats and hence have a moral and legal right to that space. While property rights can be endlessly debated, if a person pays for something and there is no reason to think that the person has acted wrongly, then it seems reasonable to conclude that the person has a moral right to that purchase. Given that property rights are well established, the burden of proof would be on those who would contend that such a purchase does not provide a property right, albeit a temporary one.

So, if someone else intrudes into that purchased space without permission or compensation, then that would be a violation of the owner’s property right. Since such a violation would be, as argued above, on par with theft it is evident that such an intrusion would be immoral. To protect the rights of the other passengers the airlines would thus be in the right to require larger passengers to purchase more space so as to allow the other passengers to fully exercise their property rights.

To use another analogy, to allow large passengers to intrude into the space of other passengers would be like a property manager allowing a person to park his boat partially across someone else’s driveway because he did not have enough room to park it in on his own property. While it would be nice of the neighbor to share her driveway space, it is her driveway and the neighbor has no right to make such an intrusion. As such, if he wants to have his big boat, then he will need to find a place large enough to park it. Likewise, a large passenger who cannot fit into one seat would need to park himself in a space large enough to allow the other passengers to exercise their property rights to the space they have purchased. Since the airlines are selling the space it is acceptable and perhaps even obligatory for them to ensure that this takes place. Since the way to ensure that this happens is by requiring larger folks to purchase more space, this practice is morally acceptable.

While the above analogies are quite reasonable, there are some objections that are well worth considering. It is to these that I now turn.

The above arguments rest on the assumption that the airlines are selling space. However, if the airlines are only selling passage to a destination, then charging extra for a large person would be unfair. After all, they are receiving no more than anyone else on the plane, namely a trip to the specified destination. The fact that they take up more space would not, it might be argument, be relevant. To use an analogy, consider an “all you can eat” buffet. If I go to the buffet with a friend and I eat twice as much as she does, I would not be charged extra. After all, I am purchasing the right to eat all I can and not purchasing a set amount of food. Obviously, if I was paying by the item, then the more I ate, the more I should pay. Likewise, if passengers are paying for transportation, then the fact that one passenger uses more space would not be relevant. They need to be provided with the space they need in order to be transported to the destination in question. After all, that is what they paid for.

The obvious reply to this objection is that airlines are not just selling passage to a destination. As pointed out above, airlines charge more for the larger business/first class seats. As such, they are selling space in addition to passage. To use an analogy, think of the shipping a package. While the service is to send a package from one location to another, the price of shipping varies with the weight of the package and not just the destination. This is because it costs the shipper more to ship heavier packages. Likewise, the price of a ticket varies with both the destination and the space. Thus, it would be morally acceptable for airlines to charge more for larger passengers because they are using more space. This is a relevant difference, as shown by the analogy, and hence it justifies a difference in treatment.

Another point to consider is the fact that being obese is considered by some to be a disability. From a moral standpoint, it is generally expected that people with disabilities should receive the same services and access without being compelled to pay more. For example, if a business put a toll gate on the handicap ramps that allowed access to the store, then that would be regarded as outrageous. Likewise, to charge obese people more because they have the need for more space could also be seen as outrageous and immoral.

Of course, one important distinction is that being obese is generally seen as the result of decisions on part of the obese person rather than a true disability. While some people are genetically predisposed to being obese, how much a person eats and how much they exercise is a matter of choice. Since they could reduce their weight, the rest of us are under no obligation to provide special accommodations for them. This is because they could take reasonable steps to remove the need for such accommodations. To use analogy, imagine someone who insisted that they be provided with a Seeing Eye dog because she wants to wear really dark sunglasses all the time, even at night. Obviously, since she does not need to wear such glasses, there is no obligation to provide her with the dog. If she wants to pay to have a dog trained so she can wear her glasses, then that would be another matter. Likewise, if someone wants to live in a way that results in a size that infringes into the space of others, then they must expect to pay for their own special accommodations.

A final point worth considering is the fact that some large people are not obese. A person might simply be larger than the very cramped seats that most airlines provide. For example, I am fairly thin but I can barely fit into the typical coach seat. Since such people cannot be expected to be smaller than they are, it would seem unfair to charge them more simply because of their unavoidable size.

One reply is that if the airlines are going to charge large people extra, then they are obligated to provide adequate space based on the size of average adult humans. If they do this, then charging larger people more would be acceptable. To use an analogy, clothing companies often charge extra for extra large (and larger) t-shirts and other clothing. This is because the larger clothing uses more material. Likewise, if the airlines provide adequate basic seating, then they can charge more for larger folks based on the same logic. Naturally, the large folks cannot help being large, but this is a relevant difference that justifies their paying more. Using another shipping analogy, it is not the fault of a box of metal cups that it is heavier than a comparable box of Styrofoam cups. However, the weight difference is relevant: it costs more to transport heavier items and hence a shipping company may justly charge more. The same would, it seems, apply to large people.

Another analogy that can be used is a meal at a restaurant. Presumably, a meal is designed so that it will satisfy the hunger of an average person. If a person who is very hungry purchases such a meal and it does not fill him up, then he would need to buy more food. He cannot expect that being able to eat more than average entitles him to additional food at no extra cost. Likewise, a larger person who cannot fit in an average seat would need to buy more space.

Thus it can be safely concluded that charging a larger passenger for an extra seat or an upgrade is morally acceptable if s/he cannot fit properly in one seat.

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4 Responses

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  1. biomass2 said, on August 24, 2009 at 7:52 pm

    Does following ‘fit’ in here?

    A person–me– of average size (5’11” +or-)and weight (178 lbs +or-) purchases season theater tickets. I take my assigned seat a few minutes early for the opening act of the first drama of the season. The seat in front of me remains vacant until just before the curtain rises. As the curtain is rising, the seat in front of me is filled by a man of gargantuan proportions (let’s say 6’8″ + and 320 lbs +) and I experience a play-long full eclipse of the stage.

    Should those in charge of the series provide me a seat of equal value with a less obstructed–to say the least–view?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 25, 2009 at 4:04 pm

      Since you paid for a viewing of the show, if another patron’s large size blocks your view, then you should be allowed to move to another seat with a proper view (such as switching with the large fellow). I’m not sure about the actual practices and laws governing this, but from a moral standpoint you’d be owed the view you bought.

      To use an analogy, having another patron block your view would be like having another customer steal your meal (naturally, stealing the meal would be worse).

  2. kernunos said, on August 26, 2009 at 2:18 am

    6’8″ and 320 lbs would be a great ‘meat shield’ in case of a crash. I would charge you more.

    • biomass2 said, on August 26, 2009 at 10:12 pm

      Crashes in theaters (with the exception of those that are part of the production) are kinda rare. :)

      Flops are more frequent and almost as painful.


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