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Questioning Safety of Heavy Passengers on Planes

More than six decades ago, when the federal standards on the strength of airplane seats and seat belts were written, government regulations specified that seats be designed for a passenger weight of 170 pounds. But now the average American man weighs nearly 194 pounds and the average woman 165.

Overweight passenger
Oote Boe | Age Fotostock | Getty
Overweight passenger

Now, some engineers and scientists have raised questions about whether airplane seats, tested with crash dummies that reflect the 170-pound rule, are strong enough to protect heavy travelers.

“If a heavier person completely fills a seat, the seat is not likely to behave as intended during a crash,” said Robert Salzar, the principal scientist at the Center for Applied Biomechanics at the University of Virginia. “The energy absorption that is built into the aircraft seat is likely to be overwhelmed and the occupants will not be protected optimally.”

Nor would the injury necessarily be confined to that passenger, Dr. Salzar said. If seats collapse or belts fail, he said, those seated nearby could be endangered from “the unrestrained motion of the passenger.”

Yoshihiro Ozawa, an engineer whose company, Jasti Ltd. in Japan, has been making crash dummies for 20 years, raised similar concerns. He said he worried that there was no data proving that “seats and seat belts are safe enough” for larger passengers.

“If we don’t test with heavier dummies, we won’t know if it is safe enough,” Mr. Ozawa said by telephone, through an interpreter. “There is no regulation that says they have to test for heavier.”

Executives with two American airline-seat manufacturers declined to comment on the issue. Dede Potter, a spokeswoman for one of those manufacturers, B/E Aerospace, said only, “We comply with all industry regulations.”

Passengers Growing Larger

In 2005, the F.A.A. updated the average passenger weights used in calculating each flight’s total weight and balance. Men’s weight was raised by 25 pounds to 200 and women’s by 34 pounds to 179. (That is the summer calculation; it is higher in the winter when travelers are wearing heavier clothes.)

The size of the seats is not a function of passenger weight but a legacy of airplane design from a generation ago, said Vern Alg, a former airline executive who is now a private consultant. “The restriction is the dimension, the width of the aircraft,” he said. “With Boeing narrow bodies, for example, if they are going to have six seats across, they can only be 17.1 inches wide.”

Strength and size are not the only factors affecting safety when the passenger is overweight. Use of the seat belt can also be a problem for these travelers. The F.A.A. recommends wearing seat belts throughout the flight, though use is required only for takeoffs and landings.

Dietrich Jehle, a professor of emergency medicine at the University at Buffalo who conducted a study of more than 300,000 serious automobile accidents, said that very overweight drivers faced an increased risk of death in a severe crash and that they were 67 percent less likely to be wearing seat belts, possibly for reasons of comfort.

Protecting Overweight People

Dr. Jehle said obese air travelers may also be less likely to wear seat belts. Unbelted passengers are at risk of injury and can be a mechanism for injury to others, Dr. Jehle said. “Force is mass times acceleration, and when someone is heavier and unbelted, there’s that much force that is being applied.”

He said both airlines and car companies needed to address the unique challenges of protecting overweight people. “Since a third of the population is obese, we need to be doing some of our crash testing with obese dummies,” he said.

Dr. Salzar said seat belts should also be tested to ensure that they could restrain heavier individuals. “You’d be amazed at how the large person blasts through that restraint,” he said.

In airplane economy seats, Mr. Ozawa said the proximity to other passengers created a higher likelihood that the heavier passenger would become a hazard by colliding with those sitting nearby. The back of the seats may not be strong enough and the spaces between seats wide enough to protect passengers from the impact of heavier passengers behind or beside them, he said.

AmSafe, an Arizona company that is one of the biggest manufacturers of airliner seat belts, air bags and child restraints, declined requests for comment.

The National Transportation Safety Board did recommend last year that the F.A.A. begin collecting information about the size and weight of people flying in private planes to determine if testing accurately predicted the effectiveness of seat restraints for a range of people from the 5-foot, 110-pound woman to the 6-foot-2, 223-pound man.

The safety board’s action was prompted by an accident in which a private pilot’s large belly prevented the inflation of an air-bag-equipped seat belt. The board has not addressed the issue on commercial airplanes because it has not had any accidents in which investigators thought a passenger’s weight was a factor in being able to escape after a crash.

Nora Marshall, a senior adviser for human performance and survival factors at the safety board, said, “I think theoretically it could have an impact,” but added that the investigators had not seen any accidents in which the weight of a passenger was a problem.

Should Large Passengers Buy Two Seats?

So far, much of the attention on air travel by large passengers has been on whether they need to buy two seats.

Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights and a member of the advisory board for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, who helped write a traveler's guide for heavy passengers, said that if airlines addressed the growing girth of travelers, all passengers would benefit.

“Airlines are not in concert with reality,” he said. Some advocates for plus-size travelers are lobbying to have obesity considered a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act. But Lex Frieden, professor of biomedical informatics at the University of Texas Health Science Center, said airlines were already responsible for ensuring the safety of all their passengers.

Still, equal safety is not the same as equal comfort.

“As airlines try to downsize seating to accommodate more people, to lower prices and maintain profitability, airlines are going to sacrifice everyone’s comfort. People in coach aren’t as comfortable as they were 10 to 15 years ago,” Mr. Frieden said.

While passengers focus primarily on comfort, a 2001 safety board study of airline accidents showed that improvement in safety design was having a positive effect. In 568 accidents over 17 years, 95 percent of the passengers lived.

“Most accidents we investigate are survivable,” Ms. Marshall said. “There is the misperception among the public that the things you do to protect yourself are meaningless because there’s nothing you can do. That’s not true.”

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