If you have to fly with Gerry or Parekura, make sure you keep your distance for safety reasons

Oops – it looks like Gerry his shifted further to the right.

Dunno if your airline booking people would oblige if you asked for a seat far removed from fatties, like Parekura Horomia or Gerry Brownlee.

But you can be damned sure Alf will be asking for such a seat henceforth, all in the interests of safety. His safety.

Of course, this might mean (probably will mean) having to ask them to seat Alf some distance away from Mrs Grumble, when they travel together because she is on the plump side too.

Explaining to her why far-separated seats have been arranged will require great tact. Maintaining a warm and loving marriage relationship is important, but she is sure to understand if the reasoning is put to her carefully.

Alf’s urge to distance himself from fatties on airliners has been triggered by a warning from scientists that obese travellers would ‘blast through’ airplane seat belts in a crash.

These boffins are American boffins, and they are banging on about safety standards failing to keep up with America’s growing waistline.

Alf is prepared to wager that what is true of American fatties is true of Kiwi waistlines, too.

The New York Times has reported (here) that more than six decades ago, when the federal standards on the strength of airplane seats and seat belts were written, government regulations specified that seats be designed for a passenger weight of 170 pounds.

But now the average American man weighs nearly 194 pounds and the average woman 165.

Some engineers and scientists accordingly are raising questions about whether airplane seats, tested with crash dummies that reflect the 170-pound rule, are strong enough to protect heavy travellers.

So what’s the danger, exactly?

“If a heavier person completely fills a seat, the seat is not likely to behave as intended during a crash,” said Robert Salzar, the principal scientist at the Center for Applied Biomechanics at the University of Virginia.

“The energy absorption that is built into the aircraft seat is likely to be overwhelmed and the occupants will not be protected optimally.”

Nor would the injury necessarily be confined to that passenger, Dr. Salzar said.

If seats collapse or belts fail, he said, those seated nearby could be endangered from “the unrestrained motion of the passenger.”

The New York Times, an august journal not prone to publishing pap like some newspapers in this country, talked with Yoshihiro Ozawa, an engineer.

He works for Jasti Ltd in Japan, a company which has been making crash dummies for 20 years.

And he raises similar concerns.

But sometimes you will be a goner no matter how far away from the fatties you sit.

He said he worried that there was no data proving that “seats and seat belts are safe enough” for larger passengers.

“If we don’t test with heavier dummies, we won’t know if it is safe enough,” Mr. Ozawa said by telephone, through an interpreter. “There is no regulation that says they have to test for heavier.”

So what do the manufacturers say?

Executives with two American airline-seat manufacturers seem to have attended the John Banks School of Public Relations.

They declined to comment on the issue, other than to insist they are doing things within the law.

Dede Potter, a spokeswoman for one of those manufacturers, B/E Aerospace, said only, “We comply with all industry regulations.”

But hey. It seems that fatties are in trouble with their car seats too.

Dietrich Jehle, a professor of emergency medicine at the University at Buffalo who conducted a study of more than 300,000 serious automobile accidents, said that very overweight drivers faced an increased risk of death in a severe crash and that they were 67 percent less likely to be wearing seat belts, possibly for reasons of comfort.

Dr Jehle said obese air travelers may also be less likely to wear seat belts.

Unbelted passengers are at risk of injury and can be a mechanism for injury to others, Dr Jehle said.

“Force is mass times acceleration, and when someone is heavier and unbelted, there’s that much force that is being applied.”

He said both airlines and car companies needed to address the unique challenges of protecting overweight people. “Since a third of the population is obese, we need to be doing some of our crash testing with obese dummies,” he said.

Ozawa is brought back into the story at this juncture.

In airplane economy seats, he points out, the proximity to other passengers created a higher likelihood that the heavier passenger would become a hazard by colliding with those sitting nearby.

The back of the seats may not be strong enough and the spaces between seats wide enough to protect passengers from the impact of heavier passengers behind or beside them, he said.

Dunno if Air New Zealand would like to put this stuff to the test.

If they do, Alf suggests they hire Horomia to help give the weight they need to their research. If the coalition’s majority was not so – ahem – slender they could have Gerry. But right now we need him.

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