NEW YORK // An apology by a US airline for throwing off a passenger deemed too overweight to fit into his seat has highlighted what people in the "fat pride" community call discrimination and bigotry directed towards those of a large body size. Along with skyrocketing obesity rates in the United States, the number of people lobbying to promote the idea that thin does not necessarily equate with health has also risen but they face a tough battle to shift public opinion.
According to internet postings, many Americans agreed with Southwest Airlines after one of its pilots decided that Kevin Smith, a film director, posed a safety risk because he did not properly fit into his seat on a flight to Burbank, California, from Oakland, on Sunday. Mr Smith, the director of Clerks and Chasing Amy, immediately expressed his anger on his Twitter page, generating widespread debate and publicity. He said he had paid for two seats but moved to an earlier flight that had only one seat left.
"I'm way fat, but I'm not there just yet," he wrote after posting a photograph of himself on the plane, puffing out his cheeks. "If you look like me, you may be ejected from Southwest Air." Southwest said its "customer of size" policy requires that a passenger fit comfortably in one seat or make other arrangements. But in an effort to manage a growing public relations disaster, it also accommodated Mr Smith on a later flight, gave him a US$100 (Dh367) voucher and apologised on the telephone and on its Twitter page.
"We would like to echo our Tweets and again offer our heartfelt apologies to you," Southwest said. With two-thirds of US residents now classed as overweight or obese, issues surrounding their treatment in the public sphere are likely to become more controversial as "people of size" become more vocal about their rights. When mistaken reports circulated last month that Air France was trying to introduce a "fat tax" and charge overweight passengers more, a heated debate broke out and the airline was forced to clarify its policy of offering such passengers the option to buy a second seat at a 25-per-cent discount.
Nonetheless, only 22 per cent of people disapproved of introducing extra payments for overweight passengers, according to a recent survey by Skyscanner, a travel website. Some 76 per cent believed airlines should charge a "fat tax". In Canada, the Supreme Court has ruled that obese and disabled people cannot be forced to buy a second seat on flights. But in the United States, complaints from neighbouring passengers spurred Southwest Airlines and United Airlines to require oversize people to buy a second seat and claim a refund if the flight is not full.
Bill Fabrey, a director at the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination, a non-profit group that advocates for larger people in areas such as medical treatment, job discrimination and media images, said airlines should provide some bigger seats to accommodate people of size, just as many cinemas and theatres had increased their seats. "People come in all shapes and sizes. No one is trying to minimise the dangers of diabetes or heart disease, but we promote the idea that all people should be healthier, not just fat ones," he said. "Judging someone by the size of their body, not health level, comes down to discrimination against a class of people."
He promotes the council's philosophy of Health at Every Size - and points to studies showing that people who have cardiovascular fitness but a high body mass index are likely to be healthier than those who are thinner but not fit. The debate about weight is also complicated by studies showing that minority women and the poor are much more likely to suffer from obesity. Mr Fabrey said he would like to see more research into the effects of everyday chemicals on a person's weight and fitness.