Are Airplane Seats Safe Enough for Overweight Passengers?

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On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention forecasted that 42% of Americans could be obese by 2030. Our expanding waistlines constitute not only a medical crisis, but according to a recent story in the New York Times, it could also endanger personal safety in some situations — namely in an airplane crash.

The Times’ Christine Negroni reports that engineers and scientists are questioning whether airplane seats are adequately constructed to protect overweight travelers: government standards for airline seat strength — first established more than 60 years ago — require that the seats be designed to accommodate a 170-lb. passenger. Today, the average American man weighs nearly 194 lbs. and the average woman 165 lbs., Negroni reports:

“If a heavier person completely fills a seat, the seat is not likely to behave as intended during a crash,” 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.”

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Most gripes about airplane seats focus on their lack of comfort and excessive ticket price — and whether obese passengers should be made to buy two seats — but the Times article brings up another reason to feel anxious about flying. The airline-seat manufacturers and seat belt maker contacted for the story declined to comment on the issue, but experts agreed that crash testing should be done with obese dummies. Both airplane seats and seat belts should be tested, they said. “You’d be amazed at how the large person blasts through that restraint,” Salzar told the Times.

Fortunately, however, according to an adviser at the National Transportation Safety Board, the board’s investigators have yet to see an accident involving a commercial plane in which the weight of a passenger was a problem.

Read the full Times article here.

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