To be fair, people who are overweight (like myself, unfortunately) should be treated with a little sensitivity. In some cases, their problem is genetic, others, it is psychological; I can name a hundred reasons why someone may be overweight.
With this said (and I'll probably get flamed for saying this), being overweight does not put someone in a protected class (here in the USA). In my case, I am disabled, so I get consideration because my weight is caused by my disability, but all the same, if I am going to take up more space that the seat allows and crush the person next to me, then I have interfered with the rights of that person to be able to have the personal space on the airplane for which they have paid (however small that may be).
My solution is to upgrade to First Class on flights where it is inexpensive to do so and I know I can get on with a paid upgrade. In other cases, I purchase the absolute lowest fare and purchase two seats. This means when I fly coast to coast, I pay $398 instead of $198 (which the lowest fare is today SEA
-NYC round trip). Also, I ask for double miles, since I am in fact paying for both seats, whether occupied or not.
Purchasing two seats is the only reasonable thing to do, for myself and the other people I happen to sit with on the aircraft. I do not suggest that this should be blanket policy; however, I do feel that, being overweight, I have a responsibility to not impose my situation on others, hence purchasing the upgrade or the extra seat. It doubles the cost of my travel for sure, but for me, its a better solution.
I do think, however, that if people should pay extra for the seat, there should be an incentive for them to pay for it. For example, if I have to purchase a second seat, if I pay a high enough fare, say not the lowest fare but the next one up, that I can get an extra seat at a discount of 20%. The net of this is that the carrier will get the same and or a little more money out of the deal and people who are overweight would be more inclined to pay if they knew they could get a discount for it. Of course, the give back would be no mileage accrual for the second seat.
Let me be clear: I do not advocate forcing overweight people to purchase a second seat...they should be given an incentive for exercising a little concern for their fellow passengers. In this way, overweight people will not be offended, the other passengers would be happy and the airline would eek out a few more pennies out of the seat.
With my last point made: IF
an overweight passenger cannot fit between the arm rests, then this becomes a safety issue in an evacuation. Under those circumstances, it should be mandatory that they purchase the second seat. This then no longer becomes a comfort and economic issue, it becomes a safety issue and in those cases, if I have to offend someone to preserve my ability to exit an aircraft in an emergency, so be it. Safety first, not only for me, but my fellow passengers.
David L. Lamb, fmr Area Mgr Alitalia SFO 1998-2002, fmr Regional Analyst SFO-UAL 1992-1998