Heavy bags cost the airlines more to fly.

Heavy bags cost the airlines more to fly.

When I first thought about airlines charging based on overall passenger weight, I thought, “No way…no airline would have the guts to do it.” But after thinking about it some and after all the recent weight-related airline news, I think this could actually work. Hear me out…

I couldn’t see Southwest or United doing something like this, but maybe someone more like Ryanair or Spirit would be willing to try it. Or at least they would advertise that they might do it in order to get free publicity, but never actually do it

Weight equals money. The heavier the plane, the more fuel it takes to move it and the more it costs. Just a little change can mean big savings for an airline. Think about shipping a package. Most of what you are paying for is weight. They will put your package on a scale, find out where it is going and give you the cost. The more it weighs, the more you pay. Why shouldn’t airlines do the same?

Already, some airlines have gotten a little creative with reducing weight. From Qantas installing carbon fiber seats to cut down on weight to ANA recommending that passengers use the restroom before their flight.

If airlines are looking at creative ways to reduce weight, why couldn’t one take it to the next step and charge for a passenger’s overall weight to get from point A to B?

Should a 80lb child with 10lbs of baggage pay the same amount to fly across country as a 250lb person with 150lbs of luggage? It almost doesn’t seem fair when you think about it. Yes, a child and 250lb person might take up a seat, but it won’t cost the airline the same amount to fly each across country.

I am not just talking about charging a passenger based on how much they weigh, but how much everything weighs that they are transporting. If you don’t weigh much and have no bags, your ticket might be extremely cheap. Where someone at 250lbs with bags will cost a bit more.

This game plan of course has its faults. Here are some of my major concerns:

* Would it cause people to do unhealthy behaviors to pay less? Like not eat for a few days or sweat out weight?
* How about passengers with documented disability of being overweight?
* At some point passengers will have to be weighed. Will they be willing to do it? They might… when flying on small prop aircraft, many will ask weight.
* What if a price cut off is at 200lbs and you are at 201lbs? That would be really frustrating.
* People would totally be upset about this. Bitch and moan and say they will never fly the airline. However, this happened with checked bag (and carry-on) fees, yet people still pay them. So short-term anger followed by acceptance would most likely be the course of action.
* Mary Kirby brought this one up…what about items you buy after you check in and are in the terminal. Like food, duty-free items, etc?

I would envision a big scale at the ticket counter. You step on it with all your gear. Only the ticket agent sees the total number. Or heck, maybe they don’t even see it and it just tells them how much your ticket will cost. Possibly, the first 150lbs get to fly for a cheap base fare and anything after that would get charged an extra $1 per pound. Someone who has a total weight 150lbs might pay $100.00 for a ticket and someone with 300lbs of total weight would pay $350.00 for the same flight.

Is this idea crazy? Possibly. But if it costs less to fly you and your stuff across country, why should you pay to fly someone else who has more weight? I would be willing to bet top dollar that airlines have already discussed this as a possibility. There might be some upfront costs, but I think a smaller airline might be able to make something like this work.

Think we might see this anytime soon? How would you react? Okay… time to hit the gym.

Image: DrBakker

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me: [email protected]

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31 Comments

This is a crazy plan you have. How would this even work. Is it going to be an honor system when you purchase tickets online ? Or is it going to be surcharge based when you get to the airport? This will cause problems too with sexism. Cause males on average weigh about 195 and females 160 lbs.

Is it really sexism? What do you think about car insurance? Female rates are much lower than male rates because females. All about risk in that case right? This is no different (imo). The cost to the airline increases if men are flying so they should pay more.

It is indirect sexism. There are just no strong male groups to defend the rights of men. If car insurance rates were higher just for women, there would be groups everywhere fighting against that.

Rates wouldn’t be higher for just men (wrt airline tickets). Some ethic groups are going to weigh more or less than others on average.

Also, it isn’t sexism(direct or indirect) if the group is not targeting men directly. You would have an argument if you said this would be sizeism(whatever the right term for that is). They are acting on both groups equally (aka not sexism). I think we live in a society that is way to sensitive. Not everyone is going to get the same experience in life, that is just they way it is.

If folks really got in a tizzy over this (which I really doubt), you could have rates for men and women be different. Although that seems sexist in favor of men at that point.

Don Palmre

I think we are putting weight in the wrong places. Let’s talk safety. I would much rather that there be a weight system surrounding the escape doors. Skinny people should populate these areas to speed rapid exit as time is of the essence for survival. They should be given a discount on their tickets for the potential of saving more lives by being more nimble in their movements, i.e. decreased poundage means increased agility. A 98 pound oldster? Easier to push him/her down the slide with rapid dispatch than an obese person who may not even fit through the door. Another good reason to go to the gym before planning a flight: Survival!

Honey, If you are 160 lbs or more you are obese..I say charge more income tax to overweight people also, they are using more resources than the rest of the healthy population. Might make them invest in a bow flex like us fit citizens invest in a fuel efficient vehicle!!

Gordon Werner

the problem is how will they prove your weight? people will always under guess it … and that can lead to problems if the plane weighs much more than the pilots think. That is why weight & balance uses average weights (+ fudge factor) …

I’d think the better route would be to give a discount to those who are willing to be weighed … so as not to penalize anyone who would otherwise be embarrassed. Sort of like the body scanners … you don’t have to go through them … but the security process is simpler if you do.

I think this is a great idea! But maybe it’s only a great idea, because I have a family that consists of petite people. My wife is 4’8 and weighs only 120 lbs, and my daughters look like they will be as petite as her. I myself am 5’3 and weight 145 lbs. As you can see, this would make me very happy! Then again, what about when a woman is pregnant. They gain about 35-40 lbs. That would probably make not make them happy. Still I think it’s a creative thought.

Oh and I think that the honor system would simply consist of being weighed before you get on the plane and sliding your card if you weight over your what you stated on the online purchase process.

I love this idea. I look at it as a way to reward those folks who have made the choice to live a healthy lifestyle. It is the same idea as car insurance, if you are more likely to cost them more money, you get charged more. After reading this I’m surprised airlines aren’t already doing this. It actually might reduce my airfare and help them make more money.

When I read the subject I automatically thought, no, I would not be happy about that. I’m pretty sensitive about weight related things as are most people. However, after reading through the whole thing, I can see the logic.

The only thing I wonder about are the logistics of it. How would they weigh you? My worst nightmare would be a giant scale Biggest Loser style but I assume they’d do it in the most discreet way possible. Actually, wouldn’t they need to somehow know your weight prior to you purchasing your ticket? That would be the tricky part.

Anyway, back to my original point, it does make sense. It seems like it would be fair that a heavier person with a lot of luggage should pay a little more than someone who is bringing less weight onto the airplane especially since weight plays a factor in how the fuel is used.

This is tricky……. but I tend to think this would be too difficult a thing to regulate. I am five feet tall, so I’d have to work hard to hit 200 lbs, whereas someone who is 6 feet tall could be in prime shape at the same weight. It seems unfair to dock a person for a variable over which they may have no control; luggage can, with some effort, be controlled, minimized, etc. That said, if a person requires more space (i.e., an additional seat) it is understandable that an airline charge for the space.

It makes perfect sense to me. Everywhere else in the transportation industry, the cost to ship a package is directly proportional to the package’s weight and size, and customers are charged accordingly. Instead, in the travel industry, the lighter customers with less baggage in effect pay more to make up for the cost of the heavier customers with more baggage. Furthermore, people come in many shapes and sizes, but the seats don’t. Perhaps people would feel better if the surcharge for a heavier body weight or a larger seat was less than the surcharge for things they have more control over, like how much their baggage weighs or whether they want an inflight meal. Either way, the “one size fits all” pricing only benefits the people who come out ahead in the cost and comfort redistribution.

As for the logistics of it all, it would certainly require that each person be weighed along with their baggage during check in, and would inevitably create a huge volume of transactions for credits or additional charges when the passenger’s total weight differs from their estimate given at point of sale. The cost to implement and manage this program would have to be carefully planned against the projected cost savings, as designing the passenger ingress to include the weigh in, increased check in duration, and fee processing would offset the potential savings quite a bit initially. A graduated pricing scheme would alleviate some of that (i.e. round weights out to the nearest 10 or 20 lbs). Incentives could be given for “overestimating” rather than “underestimating” – like if you overestimate by <20 lbs and waive the credit back you get a free in-flight meal. Airlines could provide ways to adjust your claimed weight online prior to the flight once you get your bags packed (and maybe give you a slightly better rate for not waiting until you get to the airport).

All in all I think it makes perfect sense if they also include seat size as a factor.

How do you allocate the weight of the plane? For example do you divvy up the plane weight equally amongst all passengers, or prorate it based on passenger weights? And what about cabin crew – who “pays” for their weight? And as a tall person why should I pay for the weight of things like foot rests and neck rests which I can’t use because they are made for small people.

The reality is that passenger weights and variances amongst them are not that big a deal compared to the overall weight of the plane, its fuel, cargo, fuselage paint etc. ie someone weighing twice as much as someone else does not cost twice as much due to all the other weight. Additionally the airline is not losing out – for example two smaller people cannot be stacked into the same seat whereas two packages half the size of a larger one could occupy the same space. So maybe they could charge $5 less for some passengers and $5 more for some others, but it is hardly worth the trouble. As an example the empty weight of a Boeing 737 seating 150 passengers is about 620 pounds per passenger. Now add in the weight of the fuel to move that empty weight, the seats, cabin crew, reserve fuel, water for the toilets, fuel to move the fuel etc and we are talking a few hundred more pounds – as a SWAG lets say 200 more pounds. This makes the real flying weight of a 120 pound person be 940 pounds while a 250 pound person is 1,070 pounds – a 14% difference. (If someone has better numbers it would be interesting. Looking at other planes, a Boeing 777 300ER empty weight starts out well over 1,000 pounds per person.) The cost of a flight is more than just weight of fuel, and includes salaries, landing fees, marketing, mechanics, the cost of the plane, insurance etc. If fuel costs of a flight are 40% of total expenditure then you could argue for about a 5% spread between the ticket for that 120 pound person vs a 250 pound person. And of course if the plane is less than 100% full or passengers make changes you’d have to keep changing the allocation.

But this betrays not understanding how airlines price flights. They are not priced as the actual operating cost of the flight plus a small profit margin. Instead it is based on how much demand there is, funneling people into connecting flights, supply from competitors and yield management techniques. For example see the following thread on reddit noting two different prices for the exact same flight:

http://www.reddit.com/r/AskReddit/comments/dmvzg/why_do_airlines_do_this/

All the ancillary fees are things they charge because they can get away with them. There is no real technical basis for charging based on weight.

So, I did a little math, and it cost United Airlines approximately $.04 per passenger mile in fuel, for their longest route that is $311.72 (UA 895/895 ORD-HKG). That does not take into account the weight of the plane, fuel, and other stuff, which, on average, accounts for 80%-90% of the planes MTOW. So, of that $311, only around $40-$50 of the cost of that ticket is for the fuel, which is the only thing impacted by the weight of a person. The average person weighs about 160, so we are talking about $1/3lbs on such a long flight. $35 for 100lbs is insignificant. Of course there are $100s more in costs for things like flight attendants, gate agents, etc. on the ticket, but in the end very little is the personal fuel cost. This is based on what United spent on jet fuel last quarter, divided by 3, and then using the revenue passenger miles from September, so the numbers may be a little off, but if gives you an idea how little an extra hundred pounds impacts the fuel consumption. Obviously baggage is not a big deal because you have to pay extra for bags and even more for heavy bags, I am not sure what that was brought up in the article.

America has a serious obesity problem and we have to do everything we can to fix it. So yes, absolutely charge more for them love handles. Don’t be a muffin top!

@Marie: While many may agree with your sentiments, requiring the airlines to charge by weight will not achieve that goal. For a start everyone here has been talking about the weight of the passenger not their level of obesity. And obesity by itself is not the health problem – general levels of fitness also apply. (For example I know people whose weight and body fat levels are in the “very healthy” range, but whose health is poor due to bad diet and no exercise.)

If you want to achieve various health goals because of the effect they have on others, then there is already a simple solution – use the tax system. You increase taxes on things you do not want and decrease/subsidise on things you do want. This well known principle even has a name, extensive studies etc and is known as Pigovian tax: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pigovian_tax

The reality is that the US tax system subsidises unhealthy food (especially corn), doesn’t do much for our youth and learning to eat/exercise well, and has a healthcare system based on waiting for bad things to happen to people’s health before paying lots to do something about that rather than being preventative. Changing airline ticket prices by a few dollars is the least effective way of achieving any health goals.

Could be what goes around comes around…I remember reading in the early days of commerical aviation, airlines would indeed weigh passengers, not for fare purposes, but to accurately gauge the weight of the aircraft. Planes had limited range in those days, and a couple of hundred pounds here or there could hinder the plane’s capacity and range.

So long as they include the weight of your luggage (both checked and carry on) in the calculation. How fair is it to charge more for a 170 lb man with 30 lbs of luggage than for a 140 lb woman with 70 lbs of luggage when the theory is to charge more for more weight?

This is a great idea, it’s fair and quite simple to implement.
I would do it in a very transparent way: charge a fixed cost + a variable cost per lb or kg.
Fixed price covers the fixed cost per pax (salaries, a/c leases, airport fees, one meal, etc.), variable price to cover variable costs (essentially fuel, but also small stuff like luggage service, etc).
For example on JFK-LAX flight instead of everyone paying $400, charge $$250 + $1/lb.

Very simple. Very fair. When overweight people drive uphil they use more gas than skinny people. Doe they get a break at the gaas pump? Big people may consume more food than small people. Do they get cheaper food at the grocery store? Why subsidize air travel based on weight? Why would skinny people have to pay for overweight people in the air? Current pricing is discriminating against small people by forcing them to pay for large people. It needs to change to be fair. Fairness is easy to implement and “accept”.

Isn’t this idea a little prejudice towards tall people? Should they have the pay more simply because they’re taller than other people, which will mean that they are naturally heavier than other people? I think if we’re going to implement this we’re going to have to go further than simply judging weight. A weight to hight ratio would be much more effective in my opinion.

Furthermore, there are some people who actually have serious health problems, and as a result, they are heavier. How about senior citizens who’s legs may be deteriorating, therefore, causing them to gain weight. This idea would violate not only the freedom of not being judged in a discriminative way, but privacy as well. I don’t think that any airline would risk losing large amounts of passengers (with lots of money) in implementing this idea.

clearly you may not understand what’s already going on. the existing structure is prejudiced against those who are smaller (shorter with less weight), as they are currently subsidizing those who are larger (taller, with more weight. smaller people can’t help the fact that they are smaller, yet have to pay the same amount for a seat as someone who may be more than twice their size! in addition, have you ever gotten a seat and been flanked by very large people on either side, encroaching on your space? everyone paid for their ticket, yet the larger people take up more space and infringe on the smaller people.

it would be similar to asking someone who has a hybrid car to pay the same dollars per year for their gas as someone who owns a large SUV, regardless how much gas they actually use.

simply put, it costs more to fly more weight. if my combined weight (self and luggage) is more than you, i should pay more.

Thromby Air is already doing it!
http://www.thrombyair.com/terms.html

And, we also have a automated passenger sizing system…
http://www.thrombyair.com/departure-slots.html

Heavy (fat, tall) people should pay more to fly than light (slim, short) people, simply because it costs more to fly them.
This is not negative discrimination. Is it wrong to charge a 7 foot 350lb man more to build him a suit than you would charge a 5 foot 100lb boy?!
All this talk of insensitivity is a cover for heavy people to keep riding on the backs of others.
Maybe if they are made to meet the actual cost, the ones who can do something about it, will.
It’s time for us to mentally evolve and realize/accept that we no longer need to use our bodies as energy stores.
In our societies, Grocery stores, refrigerators, restaurants, etc are here to stay and we can/should get our energy supply as and when required from there.
The irony is that in some parts of the world where they still need to store up fat in their bodies for survival, the people there are soo thin!

I think we should lower the price of a ticket, get rid of baggage fees and charge a surcharge on total weight of ticketed passenger with baggage at checkin. The passenger weight would not be the issue. It would do away with the carry unbaggage problem which is a safty hazzard. They could still purchase ticket online, the need of paying excess baggage fee would be gone. The airlines could and would adjust their bottom line of their businesses by small adjustments to their pounds price. Adjustments could be made to deal with changing fuel prices.

I have also given some thought to the idea. I agree that airlines should consider the combined weight of the passenger and their baggage (including hand luggage). Everyone accepts that their cases are weighed and know if overweight they will be charged. When booking they should weight themselves, their case luggage and their hand luggage to come up with a total weight. Then over weight people can reduce their baggage weight to keep within the airline limit. At check-in they simply stand on the scale with their baggage and pay extra if over the combined weight limit. This way no individual will be identified as being fat or overweight.

this is a clear case where physics meets economics, it costs more to fly more weight. while admittedly there are some fixed costs, this could be handled by charging a base rate, then added a weight surcharge fee based on combined weight.

to the people who asked how would you weigh someone, or the one who said what about the online purchases, please consider that everyone has to show up at the airport, everyone. everyone follows the same process to check in and goes through security.

it’s easy. require the combined weight with a scale at the airport. everyone is already going through a line. if someone lies about their weight online, they then have to pony up the extra cash, and if they really wanted to get harsh, charge a penalty fine for online liars that exceed 5% variance without a doctor’s excuse. or possibly for those who are too shy to tell their weight, they can pay the maximum ticket price based on a combined weight of 700lbs.

case solved.

Have their ever been a charge for weight in this country? what year?

Sounds like a great plan.

But US Airlines always execute these plans incorrectly. Baggage fees were intended to make the base flight cost go down. (aka Canada) However, in the US, the just tacked it on, making their profits go up.

Do you really think the greedy American empire is going to charge less for a skinny person. NO. small/skilly will get the base rate and larger people will pay significantly more.

Also, I would rather charge by GIRTH. I am tired of sitting next to the larger person that thinks they are entitled to half of my seat as well.

Brian Robertson

Great news,
I’m one of the few that still weight what they did when they left school.
My fear is some fat person sitting on the seat next to me and spreading half across my arm rest.
Back in the old day’s the average was thin by today’s so called normal standards.
Roll on
If your overweight you pay more. Yes and I pay less and don’t subsidise you.
Brian
Tamworth

I agree but maybe not charge per weight directly but either have weight bands so for example upto 80Kg is one price then each 5kg after that is a supplement. Or do it as a combined package with your luggage. So for example 60Kg total weight (including bags) is the cheapest and would normally be for children then maybe have 100Kg then increments there after. Then overweight people could save on flights by not bringing as much luggage and you pay less for not taking as much with you. And tbh the majority of overweight people are this way not from genetics but from their lifestyle so don’t come back with excuses. All you need to do is buy one less pizza and burger each week and that’s your weight surcharge taken care of and ultimately your ticket price will reduce as you loose weight!

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