Many customers laud the airline industry's move to lessen in-flight discomfort. Others wonder: Why can't they just widen the seats?

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WASHINGTON — U.S. airlines, already trying to sell extra legroom and faster lines, are finding another innovation hard to push: second seats for overweight passengers.

It’s a very hard sell: On airlines such as Southwest and United, people who can’t fit into 17-inch economy seats with the armrests down and their seat belts fastened must buy a second seat or they don’t fly. US Airways and American Airlines are likely to offer free second seats, but on a full flight they make extra-large passengers pay for them.

Fliers who have been compressed by their neighbors love the idea. “They should be required to pay for the extra space,” said Scott Land, 54, of Seattle, who is thin.

Gargantuan people like Washington bookseller Gary Lewis, who is 6 feet 8 inches and weighs 400 pounds, hate being forced to buy second seats. “There should be wider seats for everyone,” said Lewis.

Many passengers, even svelte ones, would agree. The problem is, Boeing set its 17-inch standard for economy-class seats in 1954. At that time, the average U.S. adult male weighed about 166 pounds and the average female weighed 140 pounds.

Today, the average U.S. male is 28 pounds heavier, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, and the average female 24.5 pounds heavier. But Boeing’s economy-class seats max out at about 17.25 inches, Airbus’ at 18 and Brazilian-made Embraer’s at 18.25. In comparison, widths for Boeing first-class seats for domestic flights typically range from 18 to 22 inches, depending on the airline, according to

Precise seat widths vary by airline, but as a rule of thumb, a human seat of up to 21 inches can be shoehorned into a 17-inch seat.

Even that is “very uncomfortable, because you’re sitting there touching someone else,” said Greg Eagerton, 47, a hospital administrator in Birmingham, Ala.

Touching puts it mildly. Eagerton believes — accurately — that the discomfort is “more common now than it was even five or ten years ago.”

Indeed, one-third of Americans today are obese, the federal health-statistics center reports.

“So why not change one-third of aircraft seats to accommodate them?” asked Rebecca Puhl, director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

She sees possible bias against obese people in making them buy second seats. Such bias is “increasing at disturbing rates” at the national level, Puhl concluded in a 2007 study she co-authored, “Changes in Perceived Weight Discrimination Among Americans.” It found that reports of weight bias in a surveyed group increased from 7 percent in the mid-1990s to 12 percent a decade later.

“It’s a sensitive subject, and it has to be handled with care,” Southwest spokeswoman Ashley Rogers said of selling second seats to obese people. “But if the armrest cannot go down, they would be asked to buy a second seat. Most of the time, if they really need two seats, they know it beforehand.”

But not always, said Peggy Howell, spokeswoman for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, an advocacy group for overweight people in Oakland, Calif.

“I have personal friends who have been called out of line and asked to buy a second seat,” Howell said. “If they see someone standing there who they decide is too big, they get called out, and it’s embarrassing and humiliating.”

American, JetBlue and US Airways give oversize passengers a free second seat if one’s available. Some carriers want obese people to buy second seats in advance but will refund the price of the second seat if the flight’s not full.

Air Canada, a pioneer in selling second seats to obese passengers, was forced last year by a Canadian Supreme Court decision to treat them as disabled passengers. The extra seat is mandatory and free on flights within Canada but requires a doctor’s note that the obesity has a medical cause.