Flying was once a privilege – and few passengers minded the extra calorie intake from relaxing for a few hours in a comfortable seat while savoring a steak meal accompanied by some champaign. Now that air travel is just another mode of public transportation, however, the whole experience can feel more like a weight-loss regimen – from long walks in the terminal, to the lack of in-flight food service to the forced yoga positions in a cramped seat.
Despite these rigorous routines, oversized passengers have been posing a problem in crowded economy cabins, especially for airlines based in more developed countries. With a third of Americans considered obese by health officials, for instance, many of us who regularly fly to or in the US have had the unpleasant experience of being squeezed by an overflowing seatmate.
Small wonder, then, frequent fliers – who normally despise legacy carriers’ nickel-and-dime approach – applaud the decision by the six largest US airlines to require obese passengers to buy a second seat on full flights. (One US airline, by the way, has also been dealing with another weighty issue recently, with the flight attendants union at Northwest Airlines filing a grievance with the management for offering their uniform in sizes only up to 18, rather than the usual 28.)
No Chinese airlines have followed suit with the second-seat policy. But with more than 12 million overweight or obese kids in China, they may want to prepare for the next generation of passengers. Meanwhile, Spring Airlines, China’s pioneer no-frills carrier, appears unwittingly to have come up with a creative solution. The Shanghai-based airline recently grabbed worldwide attention for proposing standing-room only flights. Known for its super-low fares that start at RMB 1, Spring has continued to grow despite the economic downturn. Eager to pack even more people onto its already crowded A320s, the carrier has reportedly asked manufacturer Airbus to devise a barstool-type scheme, which could offer 40 percent more room for passengers.
Never one to be outshone, Ryanair, Europe’s largest low-cost carrier (which recently threatened to bring coin-operated lavatories on board) has declared its intention to consider a similar plan for its Boeing fleet. In the unfortunate event that standing-room flights fail to take off, Ryanair fliers won’t lack for workout options. In a move to save USD 40 million a year, the airline has announced a DIY luggage policy. Starting next spring, all passengers will have to haul their own bags through security, departure areas and across the tarmac to their plane. They will then be able to carry on one bag but leave any others to be loaded into the cargo hold – and picked up the same way upon arrival. Just imagine the calorie burn! Steven Jiang
This article was originally published on page 100 of the August 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.