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Should overweight customers be footing the bill for their excess baggage?

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Should overweight customers be footing the bill for their excess baggage?iStock

These days, we're all paying more to travel. And not just for the plane ticket, either. As the airlines look to find new and creative ways to squeeze just one more shiny penny out of each and every passenger who climbs aboard, the pounds count.

Some pounds, anyway. Drag your suitcase up to the counter, put it on the scale. Even just a hair over? There's a fee for that. 

So why, then, do some airlines still try to look the other way when those extra pounds belong to the passenger's body?

Some airlines call them, diplomatically, "customers of size." Their doctors would likely use the word obese. A growing chorus of travelers - tired of sharing valuable real-estate on a long-haul flight with someone's love handles - use words we won't even print here. 

Seriously - why not charge passengers the same as their luggage?

Well, that's easy. Luggage, after all, doesn't have feelings. People do.

Not that fatties are getting a free ride; in the past few years, airlines have become far less awkward about stating their policies on obese passengers right up front. Sometimes the policies are written out, plain as day, other times not. But few and far between are the airlines that aren't looking to ensure that passengers carry their own weight.

Southwest Airlines was ahead of the pack with its up-front - and many have said, rather cold - policies regarding the customer of size.

It's simple, they say. Either you fit in the 17 inches between the armrests, or you don't. If not, you buy a second seat, or risk having one forced on you when you show up at the airport - agents are given leeway to decide whether or not a passenger fits. AirTran, set to merge with Southwest, has adopted the same policy.

Even United, which used to give the equivalent of a terse "no comment" on the matter, when pressed, has now relented.  Clearly-stated policy now urges the customer who "requires extra seating" - hint, hint - to take care of business before boarding the plane. As in, purchase an extra seat. As on other airlines with such a policy, you take your chances at the airport - staff are empowered to refuse you at the gate if you haven't bought the second seat.

It's no wonder even the most reticent of airlines are jumping on the second seat bandwagon - according to the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (yes, there is such a thing), seat size - typically 17 to 18.5 inches - hasn't kept up with passenger size; the association says that between 1960 and 2002, Americans on average went up by about 25 pounds each. 

Is this increasingly hard line the airlines are taking just a bit unfair?

Frankly, as I've proposed in the past, there's a better way. Install a couple of rows of extra wide seats (two by two configuration instead of the typical 3 by 3) in economy class, and perhaps charge a reasonable premium for them. No extra perks, no extra legroom, just extra width.

Some flyers, particularly those who have been blindsided by the policy when they show up at an airport, think the airlines have gone too far; Southwest, for one, has been sued multiple times by passengers who say that airline employees ruined their trip.

That may all be coming to an end, though - an appeals court recently ruled that passengers of size in the United Kingdom may no longer take legal action against carriers when they feel they've been discriminated against; in fact, experts say there that a possible "fat tax" could be the next step - can you imagine being ordered on the scales before boarding?

That might be taking it a little bit too far - even for those of us who don't spill over the armrest.

To see what your favorite airline has to say on the matter, click through to this chart for a carrier-by-carrier rundown of policy (or, in some cases, perhaps not for long, lack thereof.)

George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.