Management & Operations

How to fit all shapes and sizes

Posted on May 1, 2006

For more than two decades, some airlines have had a policy of charging passengers for two seats if they take up all or part of an adjacent seat. Motorcoach operators, however, have been reluctant to institute similar policies. METRO interviewed tour, charter and line-haul operators, as well as two trade associations, to see how individual owners are coping with the challenge of overweight and obese passengers. ADA and the overweight
Lori Harrison, director of communications with the American Bus Association, says no industry-wide policy regarding overweight passengers exists. Victor Parra, president of the United Motorcoach Association, adds that “if someone is wheelchair-bound [due to excessive weight], it becomes a handicap issue. These people are a protected class and fall under ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act] guidelines; a passenger must give the operator 48 hours’ notice of special needs, and the operator must provide for those needs.” Whereas seats are assigned on commercial aircraft, passage — not seat preference — is what one buys when purchasing a bus or coach ticket. Spokesperson Anna Folmnsbee says Greyhound operates on a first-come, first-served basis. “Passengers can change seats, get off and get back on at a later time on a bus that may not be as full.” Brad Weber, president of Gray Line Worldwide, says policy regarding overweight passengers is not mandated from its Denver headquarters. Rather, “decisions are left to the individual operators.” Larry Wickkiser, owner of Bellair Charters of Ferndale, Wash., says his airport-shuttle dispatchers move up to the next larger bus when they reach 85-90% capacity, thereby ensuring a cushion of empty seats. “It’s not often that we have completely full buses,” he says. “That’s not the way I want to run my business — cramming on as many people as possible.” An added expense
“It’s a different story with charters,” Wickkiser says. “The tour operator knows who’s going on the tour. It’s the contractor’s problem if not all his passengers will fit on our bus. We can get him another bus or rent a cab for the extra passenger, but that will be an extra expense. We’re in the customer service business, and we want to make sure that everyone has a good experience, so we do whatever we can to ensure that.” Efraim Fixler of Gold Coach Tours in Miami voices a practical approach: “As long as we can fit everyone on and close the door, we’re ready to go.” If passengers are unable to participate in the walking part of a tour, they may not sit in the bus unattended or with the driver — who would have to be paid for this time — while everyone else gets off, says John Hartley of Brea, Calif.-based Gold Coast Tours. “Generally, participants know what they’re getting into,” Hartley says. “If they can’t do the walking that the tour entails, and if they don’t have a cart, they simply don’t sign up.” To accommodate severely overweight passengers, Gold Coast has four buses with wheelchair lifts out of a fleet of 30. Lavatories pose problem
CEO Gladys Gillis and Operations Manager Tina Thompson of Seattle’s Starline Transport echo a theme voiced by other operators: Though passengers who are unable to walk up the bus stairs can be aided with lifts, lavatories pose a problem. “If someone who was obese needed to use the restroom, we’d have to find a rest stop,” says Gillis, “because he or she would be unable to enter through the lavatory door.” For the most part, passenger comfort and ADA mandates dictate policy regarding overweight bus passengers. But as fuel prices continue to rise — exceeding $3 a gallon in many parts of the country — bus operators may be forced to take another look at overweight passengers who take up two seats and who may be three or four times the weight of other passengers.

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