Should heavy travellers pay more?
Imagine this: next time you book a plane ticket, you might have to pay according to how much you weigh. That’s if a controversial proposal circulating the airline community ever becomes mainstream practice.
Earlier this month Samoa Air made headlines for becoming the first carrier to charge passengers according to their weight. The small South Pacific carrier, which flies mostly domestic routes, charges passengers between 2.12 Samoa tala and 2.41 Samoa tala per kilogram, depending on flight length.
Its policy coincided with the publication of a report by Norwegian economist Dr Bharat Bhatta of Sogn og Fjordane University College, that suggests that airlines should charge obese passengers more.
The reasoning behind the so-called “fat tax” is that jet fuel, the price of which has skyrocketed in recent years, comprises the single largest cost for all major airlines. And one of the biggest gas-guzzling factors is in-flight weight. As both jet fuel prices and average weight have increased over the last few decades, airlines are largely stuck paying the price.
As such, the industry is buzzing about whether it can recoup costs by charging passengers according to weight. It’s a move that would reward surprise winners – women, families travelling with children, shorter people – and penalise others, including tall men, and of course, obese passengers.
However, according to industry experts, it’s unlikely that this controversial policy will become standard practice.
For starters, the practice poses a logistical problem. Airlines would need to keep scales at ticketing counters and weigh customers at check-in, a procedural change that would require extra time and personnel, likely causing delays. Airlines would also need to factor passenger weight into their ticket pricing schemes, which would make an already-complex algorithm even more complicated.
“It would be a logistical nightmare,” said George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, a low airfare alert website. “It wouldn't be cost effective.”
Perhaps more importantly however, the policy would face certain resistance among outraged flyers, some of whom would likely be irate enough to boycott any airlines that took up such a practice. Things could get even uglier if the move spawned legal problems, with some passengers likely to sue for discrimination, possibly under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
So why did Samoa Air get away with the move? Hobica suggested it was successful because the South Pacific carrier is a very small, regional airline that typically carries fewer than 30 people per flight, making weigh-ins logistically possible. Customers of this airline also have few, if any, other flight options, making Samoa Air well poised to adopt the policy.
“Perhaps a very small airline, such as [Wyoming-based] Great Lakes Aviation or [New England-based] Cape Air, could make it work,” said Hobica. Nonetheless, he added, “I think we'll see airlines charging by the pound for bags, as they already do for cargo, before we see them charging by the pound for passengers.”