I briefly blogged the Canadian Transportation Agency’s ruling on obese passengers the other day, but I wanted to revisit it. The policy requires airlines to provide an extra seat, at no extra charge, for someone who is disabled and needs a personal assistant during the flight, as well as for someone who is “functionally disabled by obesity for purposes of air travel.” The ruling is a little sneaky: it specifically excludes “persons who are obese but not disabled as a result of their obesity.” But how does it define “functionally disabled by obesity”?
Their screening mechanisms could be adapted to include functional assessments, and related screening expertise is available to them. For persons disabled by obesity, the Agency cites the practical experience of Southwest Airlines, which screens for entitlement to an additional seat by determining whether a person can lower the seat’s armrests.
So, if someone meets Southwest’s criterion for a “customer of size” (best euphemism ever!), that person is protected by Canada’s new policy. Basically, anyone who spills over the armrest gets an extra seat. Well, there are plenty of functional folks who meet this criterion. Talk about defining disability down! (Canadian courts have affirmed this definition.)
Many other airlines have two-seat policies in place. Southwest was singled out a few years ago on late-night TV for articulating its policy, but the Dallas-based airline is not alone. Some hope the Canadian ruling will spur similar responses elsewhere. According to an e-mail from Peggy Howell, spokeswoman for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, “NAAFA is very pleased to hear that Canada has adopted this policy. We hope that other countries/airlines will follow suit. People of size have become targets for all sorts of discrimination, especially in the last few years, and it is a real victory and a joy to have someone come down on our side for a change.”
It seems that NAAFA still has a long way to go. Courts outside Canada have been less sympathetic to lawsuits by portly passengers (see here and here). Furthermore, the Canadian decision seems to raise more questions than it answers. Is someone too tall to fit into an airline seat “functionally disabled for purposes of air travel”? How does safety fit into the matter: would a morbidly obese passenger move too slowly during an emergency evacuation? This report from CTV points out that buses, trains, and ferries cannot discriminate; does the Canadian Transportation Agency put airplanes into an identical class? Airlines are allowed to take all sorts of exceptions to other “rights,” so why not this one? It will be interesting to watch where Canada goes from here.
In the meantime, keep your armrest down.
Canada: Airlines may not charge clinically obese fliers extra [Today in the Sky]
See also: Canada prohibits airlines from charging overweight passengers for an extra seat [Upgrade: Travel Better]
Photo credit: Flickr user djwess. Used through a Creative Commons license.