Scientists have questioned the safety aspect of airline seats and seat-belts that were designed 60 years ago for lighter passengers than many who travel today.
Although no commercial accidents have as yet involved the increased size of passengers as a safety issue, experts have suggested that seat belts and airline seats should be crash tested using obese dummies. Robert Salzar, the principal scientist at the Center for Applied Biomechanics at the University of Virginia, told the New York Times "if a heavier person completely fills a seat, the seat is not likely to behave as intended during a crash. The energy absorption that is built into the aircraft seat is likely to be overwhelmed and the occupants will not be protected optimally.”
Dr. Salzar also raised the spectre of collapsing seats or failing seat belts impacting on other passengers as he said they could be endangered by “the unrestrained motion of the passenger. You’d be amazed at how the large person blasts through that restraint.”
Currently seats are designed for a male passenger weighing 170 pounds which is 24 pounds less than the average male. According to Ninemsm the Federal Aviation Administration updated passenger weights in 2005 to reflect changing sizes, upping the average man's weight from 175 to 200 pounds. Test dummies still weigh a standard 170 pounds though.
Yoshihiro Ozawa, an engineer who makes crash dummies, told the New York Times "If we don’t test with heavier dummies, we won’t know if it is safe enough." However, he pointed out "There is no regulation that says they have to test for heavier.” Mr. Ozawa also noted that heavier passengers could create more of a safety issue in economy class seats due to their closer proximity to other passengers.
The questions raised by scientists and engineers is likely to widen the debate which continues concerning the matter if obese passengers should pay for an additional seat when flying.