- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

Dave Rogers dreads boarding an airplane, but it's not because he is afraid of flying.

What he is afraid of is his airline seat. At 6 feet 6 inches, Mr. Rogers finds that he needs the flexibility of an Olympic gymnast to wedge his long frame into the narrow space without extending his legs into the aisle or shoving them into the back of the passenger in front of him.

"It's very uncomfortable for me to sit in a seat made for someone who's 5 foot 10," said Mr. Rogers, 45, a warehouse manager for the Sequoia Union High School District in Redwood City, Calif.

Heaven forbid the seat in front of him should begin to recline. "My knees are already up to my nostrils, so if that person tries to push back their seat, it darn near snaps my spine. And when you ask them to put them up, sometimes they get mad and put them down anyway," he said.

Mr. Rogers is fortunate to have friends in high places, or at least tall places. A past president of the Tall Club of Silicon Valley, he and other tall people took their complaints to the top last year when they filed a lawsuit against the major commercial airlines.

The lawsuit asks the airlines to take height into consideration when seating passengers. Noting that some airline seats have more space than others, such as those in the bulkhead and the emergency-exit rows, the club wants tall people to receive preference in procuring the most leg room when seats are assigned.

The lawsuit, which applies only to the coach section, defines a tall person as anyone at least 6 feet 2 inches. Recognizing that women usually have longer legs than comparably sized men, the definition includes anyone whose buttock-to-knee measurement is greater than that of 95 percent of the population.

"There are always some seats that have more room than others, and it's very frustrating when you see a kid who's 3 foot 2 sitting in one of them," said Mr. Rogers. "This would not cost the airlines 1 cent. It's just so tall people can fly without being so uncomfortable. Believe me, after a long flight, I can barely straighten out."

With the lawsuit, tall people embark on a legal trail blazed by racial minorities and, more recently, the disabled and the overweight, in seeking recognition for a physical attribute. Thomas Cohen, a San Francisco attorney representing the Tall Club of Silicon Valley, says the case is unique.

"There's been nothing exactly like this before," said Mr. Cohen, who, at 6 feet 6 inches, has a personal as well as professional commitment to the case.

The airlines, balking at the prospect of having to accommodate another group's physical idiosyncrasies, have tried to have the lawsuit dismissed and went so far as federal court. At this time, the case remains in San Mateo County Superior Court, where another hearing on jurisdictional issues is scheduled for today. If the club wins that motion, Mr. Cohen says, the case could go to trial as early as July. "Ultimately, it's really going to turn on whether the judge thinks it's fair or not fair," he said.

What's not fair, say the airlines, is reserving the best seats for people who aren't necessarily the best customers. The lawsuit would prevent carriers from saving the roomiest seats as perks for frequent fliers, said John Hotard, spokesman for American Airlines.

But he noted that some airlines have made moves to accommodate tall people. Many carriers now offer adjustable head rests, which allow taller people to rest their heads instead of their necks. Mr. Rogers said Southwest Airlines, which has no reserved seating, has consistently allowed him to pre-board.

A year ago, American Airlines introduced its "More Room Throughout Coach" campaign, in which the airline began offering 2 to 5 more inches of leg room by removing two rows of seats in coach class.

"You'd be surprised what 2 to 4 extra inches can do," said Mr. Hotard, who added that, at 6 feet 2 inches, he can empathize with the Tall Club's concerns. "It can mean the difference between being able to cross your legs and not."

Mr. Rogers said he appreciates American Airlines' gesture, but that such promotions rarely last. "I've seen many of those ads," he said. "The airline will say they're reconfiguring their seating to get people to come, but then they eventually move it back. And they don't advertise that."

That won't happen, insists Mr. Hotard. "That's nonsense. We've taken them off and gotten very positive responses from our customers," he said.

Airlines also worry that holding certain seats for tall people, who may or may not board the flight, would drive up ticket prices. Not so, says Mr. Cohen, because people who meet the height requirement would have to identify themselves 48 hours before the flight.

"We're not asking them to spend money or fly with empty seats because they're holding them for tall people," said Mr. Cohen. "They [the airlines] just don't like being told what to do. They fought when people with disabilities tried to get special accommodations, and now they're fighting us."

While tall people are quick to note that height should not be considered a disability, they believe they have a stronger argument than those brought by groups like the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, which has sued to end discrimination against overweight people.

The California Supreme Court heard a case that dealt with overweight people, and it held that obesity was not an immutable condition, said Mr. Cohen, adding, "A distinguishing thing about people who are tall is that height is an immutable condition."

The Silicon Valley club is part of Tall Clubs International, a social organization that has a history of prodding companies for everything from tall-sized clothing to extra-long bedding and sheets.

Founded in 1938 by Kae Sumner Einfeldt, a Walt Disney cartoonist who stood 6 feet 2 inches, Tall Clubs International started in Los Angeles as the California Tip Toppers Club. The group soon began pushing for the manufacture of "tall furnishings."

"Members wrote letters, telephoned and visited businesses to encourage them to lower the cost of custom-made items," says its Web site (www.tall.org). "Success greeted them occasionally, as in the ad that trumpeted, 'Here it is Tip Toppers, you asked for it: the King Size Mattress!' "

The club now has 54 chapters in the United States and Canada and runs a Miss Tall International competition each year. Members must be 21 and meet the stringent height requirement: Men must stand at least 6 feet 2 inches when measured in their stocking feet, and women must be 5 feet 10, putting both in the top 5 percentile for height nationwide.

Gaining recognition from the airlines would be a huge victory for the club, say members, who stress that squeezing into airline seats has been an issue for tall people almost since Kitty Hawk. "This has always been a concern to tall people everywhere. It's always been talked about," said Mr. Rogers. "If we could have influenced Orville and Wilbur Wright, we would have."

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