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Major airlines may consider charging a "fat tax" — an extra fee for overweight passengers who require extra fuel to ferry around the world — but will likely never put the policy into practice.
Samoa Air recently became the world's first airline to institute a "pay-by-weight" system, where the weight of a passenger and his luggage correlates exactly to his fare.
Chief Executive Chris Langton told Radio Australia's Pacific Beat the new approach is not just the "fairest" way to charge travelers, but also addresses the obesity crisis, which is acute in Samoa's Pacific region.
"The industry will start looking at this," he said.
We spoke to aviation experts and the airlines we thought especially likely to try something like this. Bottom line: We don't see it happening. Not yet, anyway.
Why It Works For Samoa
Samoa Air is a minuscule operation that runs very short flights. Its aircraft hold about a dozen passengers, so weighing each person is not a logistical problem.
The weight of its planes' payload is more than a question of savings. One aircraft Samoa Air flies is the Britten-Norman BN-2 Islander, with room for two pilots and nine passengers. Empty, it weighs 3,675 pounds. Its maximum takeoff weight is just 6,600 pounds.
That means that if everyone on a full flight weighed 270 pounds (including their luggage), the plane could not safely take off.
In a region with a severe obesity problem (74.6 percent of American Samoa is obese; 93.5 percent is overweight), that limit can easily be reached. So a pricing system that clearly and directly benefits lightweight passengers is reasonable.
A Tempting Idea
The idea of making overweight passengers cough up extra money has a lot going for it. The heavier a passenger, the more fuel it takes to transport him. High fuel costs are a key factor keeping profit margins slim in the airline industry, and this is a way to recoup some of that cost.
Samoa Air's policy, to weigh every passenger at the airport, would be difficult to replicate on a large scale, but airlines could impose a "fat tax" — an extra fee for passengers over a certain weight threshold.
In a November 2012 paper on the topic, Dr. Bharat P Bhatta from Norway's Sogn og Fjordane University College called it one way to price tickets "correctly." He wrote:
The model can be technically and economically feasible to implement and its proper implementation may provide significant benefits to airlines, passengers and society at large, not just economic transfers.
Southwest Airlines is ahead of the game: Its "Customers of Size" policy requires passengers who do not fit between the armrests to purchase another seat.
"Obviously, they care about weight, and it does save money if people are less heavy," Hobica told Business Insider.
There's also the health argument Langton makes: Saving money is an extra incentive for people to lose weight.
Such a policy could "improve our national health profile," Hobica noted.
Makes No Sense For Large Carriers
Hobica is quick to point out the myriad reasons implementing a pay-by-weight system would be difficult for a large carrier.
“It would just be a nightmare to implement as far as actually weighing people to the pound," he said.
Putting airline baggage fees into place "took years," air travel analyst Rick Seaney told FareCompare. Adding policies that deal with passenger weight would likely take even longer.
Plus, overweight passengers could find ways to escape extra fees, possibly through the Americans with Disabilities Act. Any airline that tried the system “would probably be quickly boycotted and picketed by half a dozen equality organizations,” argued Craig LaRosa, a principal at Continuum, an innovation and design consultancy.
Systems for calculating fares on large carriers like American and United are exceedingly complicated, notes Matthew Klint, who runs the blog Live and Let's Fly on Upgrd.com. Adding passenger weight as a factor would only makes things harder.
Klint acknowledges airlines could make extra cash, though it would be inconvenient to verify passenger weight: "Hiring additional clerks to check weight would presumably be cheaper than the revenue that would be generated, but the lines would be a problem."
Then there's the question of how customers would react to being put on a scale by airlines — an extra indignity on top of the seemingly endless fees and TSA screenings they already endure.
Weight is a sensitive issue, and airlines could be accused of punishing customers for their obesity, which can be caused by a mix of genetic and cultural factors, as well as personal decisions. In Klint's view, "Overweight passengers would be angry — livid, perhaps — particularly when science is not settled on how much control a person actually has over their weight."
It's reasonable to expect that "fat tax" policies would generate more legal issues. In May 2012, Kenlie Tiggeman, an overweight woman who says a Southwest gate agent told her she was "too fat to fly," filed an injunction against the airline.
Coming To The US?
Hobica said that while a pay-by-weight system would not fly for a major airline, something like it might work for smaller and budget operations. "I could see Spirit offering a discount" to low-weight passengers, he said. Spirit did not reply to a request for comment.
LaRosa agreed: "With everything that airlines have done lately to justify additional costs, I would not be surprised if we started seeing more companies testing these waters."
But airfare expert Gary Leff nixed the idea, and questioned how much money airlines would make off of it:
Airfare is based on willingness to pay for a given flight, and how much demand for that flight there is. It isn't based on cost. And heavier passengers don't burn that much incremental fuel anyway ...
Not. Going. To. Happen.
Matthew Klint said the idea of heavier passengers paying more seems fair, but noted, "as a practical matter I maintain this is untenable in the U.S."
To find out if they're right, we contacted the airlines we thought most likely to try it out: budget operations easyJet and RyanAir.
EasyJet's spokesperson left no room for doubt:
This is not something easyJet's considering, nor does it reflect our cause of making travel easy and affordable for all our passengers.
RyanAir had a similar response:
Ryanair has no plans to introduce this measure. Ryanair offers all passengers the lowest fares, which is why we'll carry 80 million passengers this year.
But many travelers remember the days when lots of things — like having a bit of extra leg room, not printing out a ticket ahead of time, and checking a bag or even bringing one into the cabin — didn't cost a dime.
Ten years from now, stepping on a scale before going through security could be just one more indignity central to the flying experience.
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