The plane truth: Equal seating for athletes


We've all been there: boarding a long flight, having to walk by lucky colleagues who scored an upgrade. They're ostentatiously stretching their legs, drinks in hand, while the rest of us grit our teeth in anticipation of stiff necks and bruised knees from the claustrophobia-ville otherwise known as coach seating.

Now imagine you're making that stroll past a group of co-workers when you're a) older, b) far more accomplished, c) on your way to the most important business meeting of your life and d) all of the above. That's the situation players on the world champion Japanese women's soccer team found themselves in this week as they squeezed down the aisle past the under-23 men's team on a 13-hour flight to Paris en route to the Olympics. FIFA World Player of the Year Homare Sawa spoke her mind upon disembarking, saying the roles should have been reversed.

It would be tempting to attribute the inequity to cultural factors, except that the same thing just happened to the Australian women's basketball team. To their credit, Aussie hoops officials said they would make sure it didn't happen again.

The Japanese women may be first in their country's hearts, thanks to their 2011 World Cup win just months after the ravaging effects of an earthquake and tsunami, but that hasn't translated to the seating charts. Officials there trotted out a lame excuse about the men being "professionals" and, according to the Associated Press, added that the women would fly first-class if they won the gold medal in London. That takes what-have-you-done-for-us-lately to a new level. The women earned more legroom with their legs last summer.

This particular ERA (Equality in Row Assignment) appears to be a nation-by-nation battle. USOC communications chief Patrick Sandusky said U.S. teams, regardless of sport or gender, are given one economy-class ticket per athlete, coach and official. (U.S. teams fly on official sponsor United Airlines.) Individuals can choose to upgrade on their own dime if they wish, he said.

Back in the early days of the U.S. women's soccer team, players had to rattle the federation's cage to get out of middle seats on long international flights.

Obviously, there isn't always enough space up front to put a whole team even if a federation wanted to pay for it. Swimmer and espnW blogger Jessica Hardy recently tweeted that she got a coveted upgrade on the first leg of the U.S. Olympic team's trip to training camp in France -- thanks not to frequent flyer status, but to her status as a world-record holder.

That seems like a pretty good system.