Overlooked in Williamsburg

     Close on the heels of the TIME/ABC News Obesity Summit in Colonial Williamsburg, new research may have discovered the possibility that the increase in the numbers of obese Americans could correlate closely with the growth of the discount airline, Southwest.

     According to published sources, the number of obese adults has more than doubled since 1980, and is now up to nearly 59 million people. In the same period, the number of individuals flying Southwest airlines has also more than doubled to 65 million people. During that timeframe, some researchers say, the number of obese children has tripled. There are now indications that it is impossible to either prove or disprove that the number of children flying on Southwest airlines may have tripled as well.

     And, according to preliminary indications from a superficial review of certain data, there may be new evidence suggesting the possibility that the growth pattern of Southwest Airlines much more closely parallels obesity trends than other factors, such as trends in the consumption of high fructose corn syrup, fast food, and so-called junk food, that were discovered in previous superficial reviews of certain data.

     According to researchers at theBusiness & Media Institute Division of the Media Research Center in Alexandria, VA, nothing, even including the growth of suburbs or auto travel, appears to hold a greater potential for the possibility of tracking the obesity trend as closely as does the success of Southwest Airlines.

     If passenger counts at other discount airlines such as Jet Blue and AirTran -- the former ValueJet -- are factored in, the relationship may hold an even greater appearance of legitimacy.

     Whether or not there is any scientific basis for concluding that the growth of discount air travel could be at the root of Americas obesity crisis, the discount air travel makes us fat theory is as sensible if not more so, scientifically speaking, than any of the other theories espoused thus far concerning why Americans are, according to the news media, suddenly more overweight than ever before in recorded history.

     The one exception is the eminently reasonable theory that eating too much and exercising too little may have a lot to do with gaining weight. Business & Media Institute researchers note, however, that the personal responsibility theory, as it is called, has been largely discredited in recent news media pronouncements concerning an obesity epidemic.

     The personal responsibility school of scientists has been largely supplanted in the news media by the pioneering work of any number of activists associated with the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Their hypothesis attempts to convince the public and lawmakers that the food industrys astounding ability to make their product inexpensive, delicious and plentiful is a problem requiring draconian regulation and taxes. Under their theory, its up to the government to make food scarce, extremely expensive and really bad tasting in order to fight obesity.

     And, admittedly limited research does support the conclusion that the CSPI approach seems perfectly consistent with the discount airline theory: When the big airlines were under strict government control, they all served lousy, puny meals, and Americans heard nothing about an obesity epidemic. Then, thanks to deregulation, Southwest and other discounters came along and eliminated bad-tasting, tiny food portions purchased with airfares costing an arm and a leg, and what happened? Americans began gaining weight like its going out of style.

     Based on science such as that, it seems eminently reasonable that discount air travel could possibly bear at least a modicum of blame for making some Americans fat; therefore we need to re-regulate the airline industry and impose significantly higher airfares in order to bring back airline food and solve the obesity epidemic.

     An alternative possibly being studied is a hypothesis that establishing a government-run food system modeled after the old, regulated airlines would result in five food suppliers serving government-assigned markets; prices would be expected to soar and quality and choice to be virtually nonexistent. It is expected that in short order, obesity would cease to be a problem and instead become a fond memory.

Paul F. Stifflemire, Jr. is the former Director of the Business & Media Institute Division of the Media Research Center in Alexandria, VA and a frequent flyer on Southwest Airlines. He does not long for the return of airline food.