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Should obese passengers pay more to fly?

By Mark HayApril 11, 2016

Flying will obese could cost more
Passengers wait in front of the Southwest Airlines counter at Baltimore-Washington International Airport June 20, 2002 in Baltimore, Maryland. Starting June 26, 2002, Southwest will begin enforcing a policy which requires passengers who need a seatbelt extension or who cannot fit between the armrests of their seat to purchase an additional seat Stefan Zaklin/Getty Images

This summer Uzbekistan Airways, the national carrier of the Central Asian nation of the same name, announced that it would start weighing not just luggage but passengers too before flights. Although not unprecedented, this move rankled regional fliers and raised eyebrows the world. Some worried that over-eager airlines, looking for profits or efficiency, might take a page from this airline and Samoa Air, which in 2013 began charging passengers airfare based on their mass, and by so doing further restrict the freedom and equality of already tense and strict air travel.

Here Purdue University’s Professor John Wensveen, Head of the School of Aviation and Transportation Technology, shares his views on how market forces and legal norms should prevent this trend from spreading too far, with a few caveats for extremes and necessities. 

The idea of setting seat pricing based on passenger weight is not a new concept. It’s been discussed for a number of years and emerged from the weight-based air cargo/freight industry. 

Commercial airlines have not developed or implemented any weight-based fare structures. Everyone buys one seat the same price. It is doubtful the industry will move in this direction due to civil rights and fear of legal repercussions. Additionally, from a marketing perspective, a policy like this would probably not good be for business.

The concept of airlines charging for baggage fees took many years to develop and implement and is still a challenge. Airline passengers once had expectations for the price of an air ticket. Today, customer expectations are not as great. The global airline industry is moving toward a buffet model where the passenger elects to pay for select services. This trend will continue and we are seeing options for pre and post-flight services more and more. 

However, I do not see the industry charging passengers based on weight due to legal, logistics, cultural, fare calculations, perception, and airline alliance issues.

With that said, it is becoming an increasingly common practice to implement a “Customers of Size” policy. For example, Southwest Airlines refunds or provides extra seats to passengers who do not fit in a single seat. This is both a comfort and safety issue, not only for the passenger impacted by the policy, but all passengers onboard the aircraft who have paid for a seat. 

Those airlines who plan to follow the “fat tax” as it is often referred to in the industry, do so based on economic need. The airline business is a difficult and challenging industry. Operating an aircraft fleet results in high overhead costs with little profit. Every penny saved, is an important penny earned.

I can foresee small commuter/regional type operators charging for weight where it is critical for flight operations. In Uzbekistan, the policy could also be a mechanism to collect data on average passenger weight. The data could then be used to improve flight operations by having a better grasp on actual total aircraft weight.

With that said, I do anticipate airlines to be more diverse in their product and service offerings — resulting in new opportunities to generate revenue via a more expansive list of channels.