2009-02-12 / Editorial

Little Big Air

Island Lookout
By Stephen Heffner

In surveys of the chubbiest places in America, Mississippi has led the way for three years running, with more than two-thirds of its citizens tipping the scales at overweight or obese levels. West Virginia and Alabama aren't far behind in this dubious derby. Rhode Island, on the other hand, is the sixth skinniest - and, indeed, Jamestowners seem to fit that fitter picture, occupying (to my eye, anyway) less personal space per capita than folks elsewhere. Maybe that's one reason why our island, small as it is, never feels short on elbow room.

I wish I could have said the same for a recent plane trip I endured - a five-hour, cross-country ordeal in which an oversized passenger (from Mississippi?) spilled out of his middle seat and overfl owed onto my aisle seat, pinning me to the armrest for the duration, leaving me gasping, claustrophobic and all but invisible to the worried flight attendants.

Please understand: in most cases, I believe a person's weight is his/her own business. I sympathize with folks who have physical problems that bar them from slenderosity, and I empathize with the more conventionally overweight, for I know well the ease of packing on pounds and the difficulty of dropping them. (I can stand to lose more than few at the moment.) But my tolerance vanishes at the boarding gate, replaced by this cold view: if you're flying coach class with me, you'd darn well better fit in your seat.

Alas, such was not the case on this recent flight - and, as I drifted in and out of consciousness, waiting for rescuers to dig me out of the human avalanche above me, I pondered my options. I recalled, for example, that airlines had tried requiring jumbo-jetters to take two seats and pay full fare for both - but those efforts were struck down by courts as excessive and discriminatory. Then, as I clawed my way toward an air pocket, another idea appeared: why not start my own airline, with new seating strategies that would accommodate passengers of several sizes in a spirit of egalitarianism powerful enough to blunt legal challenges.

So, having survived my latest trial at 35,000 feet, I'm here to announce a fresh venture: "Little Big Air." Its centerpiece is the "Flexible Flier" program, which offers two new classes of seating, in addition to the standard coach variety. The first, aimed at the supersized, is called "Mass Class." The second, called "Barely There," targets the opposite end of physical spectrum.

In the Mass Class section, the traditional row of three seats is replaced by two wider seats. By charging one and a half times the normal fare for each seat, my revenue for the row remains the same, while the big folk pay a rate more fairly reflective of their physical overage. The section is located at the back of the plane, and its occupants are allowed to board first; that way, big rig travelers pretty much have the road to themselves as they settle in - and, after landing, they don't have any skinny nervous types yipping at them from behind.

To determine who flies in Mass Class, Little Big Air uses a version of the traditional "sizing case," the three-dimensional frame that measures whether a carry-on bag is too large. Ours is a walk-in model called the "Girth Gauge." All prospective passengers are required to step into the Girth Gauge prior to boarding, and they are sorted accordingly. At the wide end of the Gauge is a sign reading, "If your gut or your butt doesn't fit, Mass Class is where you sit."

At its opposite end, the Girth Gauge narrows until only the leanest can slip through. If they make it, the thin-mint passengers encounter a sign reading, "Your butt may be boney, but it's saving you money." And that qualifies them for the other new seating class, Barely There, in which the usual three-person row is replaced by a four-seater. Yes, the chairs are skinnier, but the airfare is also 25 percent less than for typical seats. (Same revenue per row for the airline.)

In shopping the idea around to investors, I've met with mostly positive responses - although one hard-bitten capitalist took me to task over my plans for infl ight service, especially the food and drink. In my view, the level of service should be the same for all passengers, regardless of their seating class, but he saw things differently.

"In Mass Class, we should feed 'em nothing," he said. "Not even those little bags of peanuts. Bottled water at most. Let's face it, they've had enough."

I said, "What about the featherweights in Barely There?"

"Give 'em all they can eat," he said. "How much could it be? They hate food. They'd probably turn it down!"

I'm still looking for investors.

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