Advocacy groups say airlines discriminate when they make rotund passengers pay for two seats

April 26, 2023

Portly passengers are being forced to buy two seats to fly on some airlines—raising discrimination concerns from advocacy groups who argue scientific understanding of obesity has evolved beyond viewing the condition as a lifestyle choice, reports The Guardian.

Budget international carrier Scoot has added a note about its policy to its website’s booking page, warning that “if you are a guest of size who requires 2 seats … fares and fees for 2 guests apply.” The note says: “Failure to do so may result in you being denied transportation.” But the airline does not state who would be considered a “guest of size.”

Guests are forced to pay more than just the cost of two full-priced seats, as Scoot also requires guests of size pay for advance seat assignment for both tickets—something not included in a standard fare and which can cost A$45 in Singapore dollars (US$30) a seat.

While Scoot’s warning is prominent on its booking page, many airlines have similar rules. Emirates, United Airlines and Jetstar are among those requiring some passengers to pay for two seats.

Various carriers have attempted additional charges for larger passengers in recent years, however laws are unclear as to whether this type of price discrimination is unlawful. United Airlines insists it is legal in the United States, where other carriers also charge for two seats.

In Canada, people with obesity have the right to two seats for the price of one for flights within the country after its supreme court made a ruling against airlines including Air Canada in 2008.

In Australia, advocacy group The Obesity Collective argues rules for “passengers of size” are vague and inconsistent across the industry, which in turn generates anxiety, embarrassment, and unfair costs for those affected.

The Obesity Collective is calling for a mandatory code to deal with the issue that eliminates discrimination against those with the condition and provides clear rules for all airlines that would provide consistency for passengers.

The director of The Obesity Collective, Tiffany Petre, said it was crucial to have clear laws to ensure airlines didn’t discriminate against passengers, “especially as seats seem to be getting smaller in recent decades, despite the trend in Australia of our body sizes going in the other direction.”

“If there were clear rules it would level the playing field for airlines,” she said.

Petre said she believes price discrimination occurs because the mindset around obesity in Australia has not kept up with the scientific understanding. Research in recent years has consistently found that genetic and biological factors can determine an individual’s body fat composition and metabolism—not just diet.

“People think adjustments to rules shouldn’t be made because obesity is a personal choice,” she said.

“Everyone has a role to play in their health but when it comes to obesity everyone that understands the scientific evidence and recent research developments knows that it is so much more complicated than just a conversation of personal responsibility.”

Petre was also critical of the lack of clarity in airlines’ passenger of size rules, some of which reserve the right to move a passenger to a flight on another date if there are no spare seats on the day of travel.

“A ‘guest of size’ description is difficult to understand,” she said. “Who falls into that? It leaves a real risk that on the day someone is going to be questioned in a way that is going to be very uncomfortable and humiliating.”

The Australian Human Rights Commission has previously stated that a person with obesity who is made to pay more to fly may have grounds to allege unlawful disability discrimination. Several legal and disability rights groups contacted by Guardian Australia said the existing laws were unclear.

The potential for airlines to be violating discrimination laws in how they charge passengers requiring more space “underscores the lack of consumer protection standards in aviation,” according to the Chair of the Consumers Federation of Australia, Gerard Brody.

Research contact: @guardian