Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Tightening the belt

After reading "Canada Gives Obese Flyers an Extra Seat for Free" by Dave Demerjian, forwarded by a follow Twitterer, I was wondering... isn't obesity relative? What is "spacious", and has that "spacious" shrunk (and will it continue shrinking)?

Space in the numbers, space in our minds

Anyone who's traveled on an airplane in the last ten years knows that seats have gotten smaller and smaller. The Independent Traveler shows that industry standards for leg room have decreased from a 33-34 inch standard to 31 inches (that's almost 10%) - sometimes 28 inches for short-hal charters - while seat width has gone from 18.5 inches to 17.2 inches. But Ed Hewitt put these numbers in perspective very well:

"The Numbers Game
Airlines like to think their seats hold up in comparison to office and theater seats. I wasn't so sure, so I took out a tape measure.

It took some measurements of my own:
- General: 6'1", approx. 180 lbs.
- Width, A: Distance across hips: approx. 15"
- Leg pitch: Distance from small of back to end of knee while sitting: 25"
- Height: Eye level sitting in my office chair: 48"
- Width, B: Distance from elbow to elbow while standing: 23 inches +

It's that last one that looms largest when it comes to confronting the Middle Seat Factor. It's no wonder that I don't want anyone next to me - there's five or six inches of me that I need to gather in and put somewhere else when I'm sitting in a middle seat next to two strangers so not to elbow them the entire flight.

Office Chairs:
For these numbers I measured my own office chair, as well as those of several colleagues. All were very similar.
- Width of office chair seat cushion: 20"
- Width of office chair seat back: 17.75"
- Distance from seat back to end of knee when sitting comfortably, maybe slightly slumped: 26.5"
- Distance from seat back to end of knee when sitting in a position in which I might be able to doze: 31"

My local movie theaters:
Theater 1 was stadium-style, with seats that curved with the shape of the room, making the seats wider in the back than in the front. Theater 2 was aligned in straight rows.
Theater 1:
- Seat back width: 20"
- Seat front: 18"
- Elbow-elbow: 23"
- Seat Pitch: 37.5"

Theater 2:
Seat width: 18-20 inches (alternating by row)
Elbow-elbow: 21"
Seat pitch: 36"

All told, my research indicates that a minimum 34" seat pitch would do the trick for most folks. On most airplanes, this would require the removal of only one or two rows. Doesn't seem like too much to ask.

While I was measuring one of the theaters, the concession stand worker who let me in told me a story of a recent coast-to-coast trip when she could barely walk after sitting in her tiny seat the entire flight. And I thought, coast-to-coast; that's six hours."

Obesity in the numbers, obesity in our minds

So is the question of obesity a valid one? In the interesting world of media and how it influences us readers/voters, it surely is.
When you read comments on the article, one of the primary gut reactions is "Well people eat too much, that's their problem." This is clearly a question of limits and perceptions - what happens once the seat is 12 inches wide? What happens when the average height of a person is over 6 feet (we're getting there!)? When you think about it, it's a simple problem: some seats are too small for some people, and chances are, seats are going to get smaller (airlines making money) for more people (people getting bigger).

For the hell of it, let's look at the obesity question:

The Obesity in America Organization states that "It is estimated that 25-70 percent of the difference in weight between individuals is hereditary or genetic," then qualifying the statement with "However, it is important to remember that genetic predisposition only impacts an individual’s tendency towards obesity".

I have known, from experience, people who had a genetic disease that made them go over-weight (it certainly seemed like saying the word "oreo" would make her gain 1 lb). So I find that it certainly qualifies as a category, which just means "obese" is too wide of a category (no pun intended). An other interesting thought is that under California Labor Law, pregnant women are also obese - and I could see how they could benefit from a little extra room (although I'm not sure they'll qualify). However, and interestingly enough, all these considerations don't pop when the word "obesity" is uttered in the media.

The bottom line

I once read that people don't feel sorry for other people who have lung cancer. Why? Because they assume that they're guilty. That they've smoked. That they deserve it. Is obesity in that category as well?
The other side of the story is that airlines, in fact, are making seats smaller, cramming up airplanes even more, are delaying more flights than ever, and are very happy to just let you live with it while average plane ticket rates go sky-rocketing, as MSNBC reported just 1 month ago.

Here's a completely different question: what are limits to profit? Do not doubt it for a second, the airlines would have you standing for 6 hours on a flight if that wasn't deemed too dangerous. And that's where you'd have to watch out for how tall you are, and how much of a beer belly you've accumulated during the holiday. It's not sci-fi; not so long ago, there were considerations on making passengers pay according to their weight - and again comes the question of: how much weight? What if, like seat width and depth, these numerical values were to lower over the years? And should we also charge for height? (taller people, on average, are heavier)...

Let's hope the next destination for companies isn't a Welcome to Gattaca...

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