Monday, November 24, 2008

Bizarre Canadian court ruling on airfares - celebrating your obesity!

The Globe and Mail reported a day or two ago that a Canadian court has ruled that Air Canada (the yuk factor outfit still operating as Canada's flag carrier) and Westjet (another Canadian airline), can't charge disabled people two airfares if they require their carers to fly with them. I think one can argue about this, but at least I can see how the court could reach the conclusion that charging such passengers two airfares is probably unjust.

What bugs me is that the same ruling is also seen to apply to seriously overweight people. The judgment is basically this: if you are too big for one regular seat, the airline must provide you free of charge with two seats. This is the most bizarre judgment I have ever seen (I'd love to know the judge's weight on this one ...). Here's the problem: for most overweight people (if not for all of them), the decision to eat too much or too many fattie things has resulted into them being overweight. They are by and large responsible for their predicament. Disabled people cannot usually be held responsible for their disability.

So, what would be unjust about charging the overweight crowd for the extra space that they need, and possibly even for the extra fuel needed to transport their fat around the world in an aeroplane? At the end of the day what we are doing as airline passengers is to purchase SPACE on a plane going from A to B (frequently via C, D, and E), as well as the right to truly horrendous 'service', food for purchase, the right to look at armrests and similarly amazing goodies.

My view on this issue would be that if you need more space than the average passenger you ought to be charged for the extra space. Some accommodation is frequently rightly made for very tall people (they didn't choose to grow that tall), so we often find them sitting in emergency exit rows. All that is sensible, but why people's wrong eating habits should be beneficial to them in terms of the space airlines must now provide to them without being permitted to charge them extra, completely escapes me.

Wrong verdict, and wrong message sent out to society. I need to reconsider, obviously. Perhaps I should aim to gain quite a bit of weight before I board my next intercontinental flight, so that even in economy an airlines must provide me with plenty of space. All that this means, in the real world, is that people of average size must subsidize the space overweight people require (free of charge). That is unjust. It is so evidently unjust that one wonders in which dreamworld the judges reside that passed this judgment. If anything, as a society we have a strong public health interest in encouraging people to lose weight. It's good for them and it's good for our health care bill. Perhaps uncomfortable plane seats could be a good start!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Udo,

    I think your concern is a valid one. That said, you seem to focus on the notion of responsibility a good deal.

    I am more than willing to acknowledge that some obese individuals are obese solely as a result of their own actions (poor eating, excessive eating, etc), but I am uncertain if it is as cut and dry as you seem to be insinuating.

    If an individual is disabled and requires an attendant, you seem to concede she should not be charged for the extra seat. However, what if this individual's risky lifestyle resulted in her becoming disabled? What if, for example, she was a skydiver and became paralyzed and required the use of an attendant? It is unclear to me how one would delineate between this individual and an obese person in terms of assigning responsibility for their own actions. (and even if we would want to).

    To put it more succinctly, my problem is that we have no clear mechanism to determine whether it was brute luck or option luck that resulted in an individual being disadvantaged, and thus, we will have a tremendous amount of difficulty in holding an argument for the exclusion of some (the obese) on the basis of responsibility.

  3. Wow, Christopher! That brain of yours must make you very tired.

  4. 1. I agree with all that Chris R. said.

    2. Udo you are right, of course, that we (everyone including overweight people) have public health interest in addressing rising rates of obesity. I doubt that punitive sanctions are an effective way of addressing this either socially or individually. This is an empirical issue of course, but my guess would be that this punitive approach is not effective in bringing about better health outcomes, at least not universally (and I suspect not even generally or even predominantly). I would expect that what it would produce instead is adding on top of the health problems associated directly with obesity a further social stigma and social license to treat overweight people abusively (whether verbally or otherwise). This is a problem all on its own I think, and additionally I suspect it is also counterproductive, supposing you want to take a utilitarian approach to it. I won't even start on the negative effects of abuse of overweight people on the mental and physical health of underweight people.

    3. Re. thin or "normal weight" people subsidizing the social goods accessed by overweight people: Do you really want to do a utilitarian calculus by the pound (or kilo)?

    4. Clara, I hope you like my big brain as much as Chris's ;-)

  5. Dear Jackie: at least Christopher expressed himself clearly, whereas you don't. What on earth am I to make of "I won't even start on the negative effects of abuse of overweight people on the mental and physical health of underweight people." Sounds pretty woolly to me.

    As far as I'm concerned, circus-fat people who spill over into my seat deserve - and get - a sharp smack on the offending body part.

    With utmost sincerity,

  6. Dear Clara,

    Health problems, including obesity, are not solved by hitting people. Nor is verbal abuse an effective treatment. Indeed both physical and verbal bullying contributes to all sorts of health problems.

    Anyway if airlines allow people the seat space they need then you won't be tempted to hit them, which will save you the trouble of being taken off the plane for assaulting a fellow passenger.

    Regarding underweight people, what I was thinking was that witnessing the public abuse of overweight people may contribute to or exacerbate the symptoms of people with eating disorders such as anorexia.

    Finally Clara, can you say something about why you feel it necessary to write in an insulting or sarcastic way to me, to Chris, and about overweight people?

    I am assuming that your intention is to be sarcastic or insulting, but perhaps I am misreading you. It makes it hard to know how to interpret your closing "with utmost sincerity."

    There are people on the other side of the screen who may be thick skinned or may be extremely sensitive, but you can't know in fact who your words are affecting or how.

    At any rate I think more productive conversations are possible when we don't have to waste energy on repressing the urge to answer insult with insult. At least this is my hope.



  7. We usually don't look too closely at personal responsibility when providing healthcare - e.g. we don't refuse liver transplants to alcoholics, lung cancer surgery to smokers, intensive care to people whose car accidents resulted from their own negligence, and so on. When people are in dire need, we are usually prepared to waive arguments about responsibility and so on.

    But I think that's a special case. There's an asymmetry between our response to dire need for medical care and our attitude to the purchase of ordinary goods and services in the market. If someone needs to buy the occupancy of two seats on an airplane, I'm really not sure that the law should deny the airline the right to charge them for both seats (or to charge a rate that is a commercial compromise). After all, someone else could have bought that second seat. If there are some categories of people whom we don't want to see disadvantaged by having greater needs, the tax-transfer system seems to be a better way to handle it than requiring a company to sell twice as much of its product for the same price. How is it different from requiring that McDonalds sell its cheeseburgers at half price to people with exceptionally large appetites or very fast metabolisms?

    And I really don't think that people who are not suffering any disability beyond simply being very, er, large necessarily have a moral claim to be subsidised through the tax-transfer system.

  8. Are you for real, Jackie? Yes, you misread me, I can't see where in my comment I was sarcastic or even insulting, and I'm nothing if not sincere. I don't know where you are, but where I'm sitting fat is normal, and I've had it with fat people. It is they who are the loudest, most obnoxious, and proud of being fat. In my country it is thin people who are the target of insulting remarks, and if you happen to be a vegetarian there's no end to the ridicule and abuse. Rest assured, though, that I have never (yet) hit anyone in my life, and I avoid air travel like the plague, because it's practically a given that I'll be seated next to someone fat.

    No hard feelings, I hope, Jackie. I really, truly, didn't mean to offend you. Unfortunately, I'm too old to change my admittedly abrasive style now.

    Russell, that cheeseburger analogy's a real classic.I love it.


  9. Dear Clara,

    I am sorry to hear about thin people being insulted. I have not heard about that as much as people being insulted for not being thin enough. But that doesn't matter. I think it is wrong to verbally abuse or insult people no matter what their weight is.

    Dear Russell,

    You make an interesting point about the difference between providing health care and selling things in the market. I raised the health issue only because Udo implied that denying obese people adequate seating might make them lose weight. This sounds like a treatment proposal (insofar as obesity is defined as a medical condition) and a pretty ineffective one at that. And it's a treatment with harmful side-effects.

    But back to the marketplace. There are precedents for legally requiring that goods and services be provided in a way that does not disadvantage people with disabilities. A prime area for this is transportation, e.g. voice- over announcements of bus or subway stops which make life much easier for blind passengers. This does constitute an extra burden for the bus or train company. It costs something, but, as a blind friend of mine is fond of pointing out, it also costs to light the subway and he doesn't get much benefit from that.

    In the Canadian case which triggered the airline ruling (after many years of litigation and appeal) the passenger concerned did offer to pay something more. Her decision to take the airline to court was in part a response to the humiliating treatment she received after requesting some form of accomodation for which she was willing to pay.

    The passenger “reported that when she talked with Air Canada staff about alternatives to allow her to sit comfortably, like buying a Business Class seat or paying for two economy seats and getting the arm rest removed, she was laughed at. She was assigned a seat for the outgoing flight at the bulkhead. This seat was actually smaller than other seats in economy because the tray table had to be inserted into the arms of her seat. Because of this, the seat allowed less space for her between the seat back and the tray. She was constantly touching the passenger beside her. Passing flight attendants repeatedly bumped into her during the flight.”(p.31)

    I am quoting from an article called "Weakness, Sickness, or Social Pariah?: Obesity and Human Rights Claims in Canada as a Case in Point," by Barbara Hanson, prepared for submission to the New York University Review of Law & Social Change. You can find it online if you enter a few keywords from the title into your favourite search engine. It provides more context including relevant legal cases and disability and discrimination theory.

    Cheers, Jackie

  10. Jackie, the outcome doesn't seem to be that you can get two seats if you are prepared to pay but that the airline must give you two seats for the price of one. So, should it? I still don't see that there is anything analogous to the public policy basis for trying to integrate the blind (say) into society. We all seem to agree these days that there's a compelling basis for that (presumably the suffering experienced by the blind if they are marginalised combined with the wish not to lose social use of their talents merely because they are disabled in one respect). I still think that the taxpayer/general revenue should pay for public policy initiatives as far as possible, but okay we do impose some costs on providers of goods and services in their quasi-public role where efficiency pursuit of public policy demands this.

    But do the same arguments apply to people who are merely large and may be well-integrated into society as to people who are blind? I doubt it. In many cases, as Udo says, the solution is in their own hands. And there's no real issue of society losing the talents of these people as with the blind.

  11. Russell,

    I am puzzled by the wording of your question about whether equality provisions should apply to someone who is "merely" large and presumably "well integrated".

    In the case of the person who brought the case I referred to above, her size combined with the size of the airline seats created a barrier to her travel. It did not make her travel impossible any more than curbs make wheelchair mobility impossible, just difficult and uncomfortable and possibly a source of injury.

    It is quite likely (though I do not know this for a fact) that this person was travelling for business purposes, as she is a very active human rights lawyer. I would count that as the activity of a highly socially integrated and socially productive person, though I am loathe to say that people who have a physical condition which complicates their travel arrangements should only be accomodated if it can be proven that they are engaged in socially productive activities. Nonetheless this test would be passed by at least some obese people who travel by plane.


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