The rise of obesity has sparked a lot of discussion about overweight passengers and the confined spaces inside airplanes. Most of the controversy has focused on whether overweight or obese people should be required to purchase two seats if they can’t fit comfortably in one, or whether airlines should include some “extra wide” seats for a premium price. These are largely comfort issues, both for larger people and for the folks sitting near them. But are traditional airplane seats actually safe for overweight passengers? Perhaps not.
Outdated safety requirements
Airplane seats and seat belts are tested with crash dummies designed 20 years ago that project the weight of the average person at 170 pounds. Today, however, the average weight for men is 194 pounds and is 165 pounds for women. The ability of safety implements in airplanes to protect heavier passengers is largely unknown (New York Times).
Many have begun to recognize the issues associated with outdated safety requirements and propose testing airline safety mechanisms with heavier dummies that more accurately reflect the size and weight of today’s airline passengers. Robert Salazar, a scientist at the Center for Applied Biomechanics at the University of Virginia, said, “You’d be amazed at how a large person blasts through that restraint” (New York Times).
The potential consequences of seat belts failing to restrain heavy passengers poses a safety risk for everyone on the aircraft, for the same reason that passengers are required to stow luggage securely in overhead bins or under their seats. Any object (including a person) moving freely about the cabin turns into a potential projectile.
Other airline obesity issues
Overweight and obese passengers can also affect the balance of an airplane by adding excess weight and taking up valuable space — and even heavy flight attendants have drawn criticism. In 2010, 28 flight attendants from Turkish Airlines were grounded and suspended on unpaid leave for being too heavy. This followed a 2009 incident when Air India fired ten flight attendants for being overweight, although they were reportedly fired more because of their appearance than their ability to do their jobs.
Obesity is clearly going to be an issue in the United States for the foreseeable future, and airlines are going to have to implement rules that keep all of their passengers — overweight or not — comfortable and, most importantly, safe.
Photo credit: Matt Hurst