Air Samoa made headlines this week with its new policy of charging passengers based upon their weight (personal + baggage). Many are wondering if such a policy could ever hit airlines in the United States. The answer is not likely.
Samoa Air, which opened in 2012, asks passengers to declare their personal weight during booking, which is then charged per kg (2.2 lb) at a rate dependent on flight length.
The customers will also be weighed at the check-in counter.
According to Samoa Air’s latest schedule, the airline charges up to WS $1.32 ($0.57) per kg for domestic flights and WS $2.40 ($1.03) per kg for its only international flight to American Samoa, around 402km (250 miles). A 150kg person flying one-way internationally would be charged $154.50.
Children under 12 are charged 75 percent of the adult rate, with fares also based on weight. Any overweight baggage is calculated at the same rate as the passenger’s personal weight.
Air Samoa has a microscopic operation compared to U.S. airlines and a simple way of calculating airfare–published pricing on a route with a set charge per kilo of weight. Compare that to the vast hub and spoke systems of the major U.S. airlines, where in many instances no two people have paid the same amount for their airfare on any particular flight. Fares fluctuate rapidly and the wide variety of fare classes within each class of service (economy, business, first) routinely leads to situations in which my seatmate paid three times the price I did for the same flight. We are not going back to the regulation era in this country, with published pricing based on route and no fluctuation in fares.
How then would the logistics work if legacy U.S. carriers charged by weight? A weight “surcharge” upon check-in for those over a pre-determined limit? Allowing 100lbs of “weight” (a combo of both human weight and baggage) and charging $25 for every additional 50lbs? Will elites be exempt? Airports lobbies are already so crowded and lines often long–this would slow down the process tremendously (just as airlines move away from people and push automated check-in kiosks) and not at all emulate the ordered system that Air Samoa has. Say goodbye to mobile check-in as well…
As a practical matter, hiring additional clerks to check weight would presumably be cheaper than the revenue that would be generated, but the lines would be a problem. Overweight passengers would be angry–livid in fact–particularly when science is not settled on how much control a person actually has over his weight. Many now view obesity as a disability and courts would be bogged down with litigation over the legality of discriminating on the basis of weight.
But I am not totally opposed to the idea. Obesity is an alarming epidemic in the States and though none of us should take any joy in shaming those who struggle with their weight, if this policy encourages people to adjust their lifestyle habits, it could be for the best. I think about the typical composition of a first class cabin and one word comes to mind–rotund. And that should not come as a shock to those road warriors who spend their lives on airplanes eating airplane food and hotel room service.
Furthermore, should a three year old kid who weights 40lbs really pay the same for her seat as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie? Does a 100lb woman with a 70lb piece of checked baggage really cost the airline more to transport than a 220lb man with no baggage? Or is charging per seat the only logical method of calculating fares?
Bottom line, theoretically and even from a fairness perspective I think weight-based pricing makes sense. Still, as practical matter I maintain this is untenable in the United States.
For an alternate perspective, see Ally Fogg’s thoughts in The Guardian.