Thursday, January 12, 2012

6-foot-7 flyer refuses to give up fight with airlines.

Tall passenger - who wants extra space at no cost - looks into possible appeal of suit

When Malcolm Johnson squeezes into an economy airplane seat, his head brushes the overhead bin and his kneecaps press into the seat ahead of him.

The Edmonton architect is more than six feet, seven inches tall, and he wants Air Canada to stop charging tall people the extra fees for seats with more leg room.

"In order to sit comfortably and not inconvenience those around me, I have to take one of those seats, as do other tall people," Johnson said in an interview Wednesday. "Those airlines that fly internationally on long hauls should, I think, treat passengers who have special needs in a special way, without charging them."

Johnson took his fight to the Canadian Transportation Agency about a year ago. However, the agency dismissed his application in a written decision last week because Johnson didn't prove his height is a disability. Johnson is now looking at whether he can appeal the decision.

A note from Johnson's physician explained Johnson could be at increased risk of deep venous thrombosis in an economy airplane seat because it is too cramped and he can't move around. "However, a risk of developing a medical condition does not equate with having a condition," the decision said.

Johnson has sent documents and a letter to Air Canada asking the airline to change its policy and exempt tall people from having to pay the extra charge.

"I think it would be quite simple for an airline to say that they are going to reserve seats for people who really need extra space. Just have people bring a medical certificate or a doctor's certificate, something that says they are of a certain height and they take up so much room, and let's stick them in these seats and not charge them," Johnson said. "But they don't seem to change their policies until there's a court case."

A Supreme Court of Canada decision in 2008 forced Air Canada and WestJet to provide an extra seat, free of charge, to obese people who provide a doctor's certificate confirming their disability.

On most commercial flights in Canada, seats are 81 centimetres apart, measuring from the back of one seat to the back of the next seat. The legroom varies depending on how much space the seat and its cushioning take up.

That doesn't leave much room for Johnson's legs, which measure 70 centimetres from his back to his knee. The more expensive "preferred seating" in the exit rows or bulkhead seating provide a lot more legroom, Johnson said.

Fees for preferred seating vary. However, Johnson said it adds up to an extra $200 when he travels from Edmonton to Paris, a trip he makes about twice a year. The price doubles if his wife buys a seat beside him.

"If you want the seats, you've got to pay the fee, so I pay the extra."

Air Canada would not comment on the recent Canadian Transportation Agency decision, spokeswoman Angela Mah said in an email Wednesday.

"Like many worldwide airlines, Air Canada offers all customers the opportunity to reserve and purchase seats with additional leg room (Preferred Seat option) in the economy cabin on all Air Canada flights," she wrote.

"Preferred seat prices start as low as $16 per one-way trip and are based on length of flight, fare purchased and Top Tier/Aeroplan level status of the customer."

Air Canada has no plans to change the preferred-seat options, Mah wrote.

Alberta legislator Doug Elniski, who once described himself as being the tallest candidate in the last provincial election, said he does not enjoy air travel and tries to drive all the time, avoiding flying at all costs. At six feet 10 inches, leg room is always an issue for Elniski, who always has to book his flights far in advance to get an exit row seat, or he pays double to sit in business class.

He does not agree with Air Canada charging $200 to someone who physically cannot sit in a regular economy seat.

"I make travel decisions based upon what the airline is going to do for me as the passenger," Elniski said.

"If they are going to charge me extra to have a little leg room, I'm just not going to fly on that airline."

WestJet has been accommodating, he said. When airline staff see him at the gate, they instantly try to find him a seat with leg room, he said. But flying with Air Canada is another story, he said. Elniski said most of the time he will not fly Air Canada because he does not want to go through the hassle of getting a decent seat.

He said he never thought being too tall would ever become such an issue and that he thinks Johnson's position is justified.

"Perhaps us tall guys should all stand and be counted."

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