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At Bottom, the Problem Is Spreading

As Americans' Obesity Rises, the Seat Pinches

By Rene Sanchez Washington Post Service
SEATTLE - The polite way to describe the change being made to seats on Puget Sound ferries is to call it a refitting, or just a small but vital adjustment to suit the times. But that hides the plain truth: So many riders are so fat they need more room.

There was a day when the ferries carried 250 people with ease. Ferry officials had figured out how much space the average person needed to sit by using a precise formula - known as the 18-inch (45-centimeter) rule. It has been a kind of national standard in seating for generations, but it may not last much longer.

And in its demise is a story of the bulging of America.

From planes to stadiums, in church pews and cinemas, even here on Seattle's ferries, the growing girth of the populace is slowly but surely redefining what comfort means across the country and prompting many industries to look anew at the shape of Americans. What they have found is a problem of sizable proportions.

In response to how wide many riders are getting, ferry officials recently reduced capacity on some boats and are installing more benches and bigger seats - with a 21-inch spread - on others. For the same reason, a movie theater opening soon in Seattle will have some seats for obese patrons. And at a ballpark being built downtown, many seats will be four inches wider than seats at the old Kingdome.

''The old seats don't seem to be working anywhere,'' said a ferry rider, Craig Gagner, on a trip across the sound to Vashon Island one recent afternoon. ''My butt still fits the 18-inch rule they say they use, but so many others are so huge they're crunching us. We're definitely not as lean as we used to be.''

Nationally, some airlines are lifting tray tables higher on new planes to accommodate burgeoning bellies. Restaurants are buying wider booths and apparel makers are promoting more clothing with elastic waistbands.

The Society of Automotive Engineers is even working with U.S. Air Force researchers on a $6 million study on the changing shape of Americans. As part of it, more than 5,000 volunteers nationwide are being measured in more than 100 ways with laser technology. The study, the most elaborate of its kind in decades, is being sponsored by about two dozen top companies in virtually every industry where knowing the width of Americans is vital: General Motors, Ford, Boeing, Levi Strauss, even Caterpillar tractors.

''Nothing like this has been done in a long time,'' said Gary Pollak, a coordinator of the three-year study. ''Everyone senses the shape of Americans is changing, but we really need to know exactly how.''

That they are getting heavier is hardly a secret. A number of recent government and university studies have warned of the trend. Some have reported that the average daily calorie intake of men and women is rising sharply, that more than half the country's adults are overweight and as many as one-third obese - figures much higher than decades ago.

The weight increases are apparent, to varying degrees, in every region of the country. And with baby boomers settling in to the weight-gaining prime of middle age and many teenagers tearing into endless ''super-size'' fast-food meals, scales across the nation are expected to tip even more in the years ahead.

For seatmakers and companies who are their clients, the implications are profound.

''We don't want someone sitting in one of our cars or trucks being reminded every day that they're getting bigger,'' said Marilyn Vala, an analyst for Lear Corp., which designs seats for some of the nation's leading automotive manufacturers. ''Across the industry, we're realizing that with demographics and sizes changing, we're going to have to be more accommodating.''

Kevin McGuire, who runs a national consulting firm that advises performing arts centers on seating, said that industry has begun to learn the same lesson.

At his urging, the restoration of Seattle's old Cinerama theater includes a few dozen seats 24 inches wide and tailored for the obese. Many other seats in the theater also will have armrests that lift and more space between rows, all to make bigger people comfortable. Mr. McGuire is even training staff members in how to make subtle overtures to obese patrons who might not be aware of the special seating available to them at the theater.

''More of my clients definitely are starting to understand that more people are having a difficult time getting into seats,'' Mr. McGuire said.

But some seating critics say the signs of change evident here in Seattle are still the exception. In many industries, providing bigger seats often means having fewer customers and thus earning less profit.

Space in some new sports arenas is even getting tighter. To pack in more fans -- and to make more money to keep up with escalating player salaries - some arenas are stacking seating rows closer together and offering seats that are wider than 18 inches only to their ''premium'' ticket subscribers.

''Our society is changing, but our seats aren't really changing with it yet,'' said Vicki Wood, the vice president of the Washington state chapter of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. ''Most fat people don't want to draw attention to themselves by making a big issue of this, but it should be obvious that more people are uncomfortable.''

Even analysts in industries that depend on fitting people into seats say the measurements they use are a bit vague, or becoming obsolete. Mr. Pollak said that the main reason so many prominent companies were paying so much for a new study on Americans' size was that they were losing confidence that their seats fit customers' needs.

''They all want new averages so they can feel more secure with new products,'' he said.

Doug Oswald, who manages product research and design at American Seating, a leading manufacturer of bus and stadium seats, said that standards the company has used for years were being revamped. For example, the company introduced a new office chair last year that is two inches wider than previous models.

''The population has grown faster than the products being designed,'' he said. ''Everyone is trying to catch up.''