Ed Attwood weighs the pros and cons of airlines charging more for overweight passengers
You probably hadn’t heard of Samoa Air until last week. I know I hadn’t. But the small South Pacific airline recently hit the headlines when it said it would charge passengers by weight. “Your weight plus your baggage items is what you pay for. Simple,” points out the Samoa Air website.
The way the system works is that passengers guesstimate how much they and their baggage weigh, enter it online, and then pay upfront. They are then weighed again at the airport.
“It works both ways. People who pay more deserve more... So, it is in our interests that we take care of the people that who’ve chalked in at 150, 180 kilogrammes,” Samoa Air CEO Chris Langton told CNN last week. “They’ve paid their fare and we try to give them what they should have, which is a comfortable seat. We try to make sure they have space around them, so that taller people have got more leg room — within the confines of the airplane these days we try to do it."
It’s much easier for an operator like Samoa Air to implement this kind of scheme than a more conventional carrier. The airline has a fleet of just three aircraft — two ten-seaters and one four-seater — and as a result, well-fed passengers make a significant difference to an aircraft’s take-off weight.
This idea has been kicked around a fair bit in the last few years. Bharat Bhatta, an academic in Norway, suggested in March that carriers had three choices: charging by kilogramme, offering lighter passengers a discount and heavier passengers a surcharge, and dividing passengers into three bands (heavy, light and medium) and charging them accordingly.
Airlines are operating with wafer-thin margins in an era of economic despondency and an oil price that is sucking up a huge chunk of revenue. In the first half of this fiscal year, fuel accounted for 39 percent of Emirates’ expenditures, and that’s an airline that tends to manage its costs better than most.
Even before the credit crunch, big carriers have tried to find ways to manage the thorny issue of costs. Back in 2003, Bob Crandall, the then-boss of American Airlines made the famous decision to remove the single olive added to each passenger’s salad as a garnish. That apparently amounted to a saving of $40,000 every year.
The undisputed king of cost saving, however, is Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary. Among the hare-brained schemes that the Irishman has come up with include: removing all the seats, and telling passengers to hang on ceiling straps; encouraging flight attendants to lose weight by offering them a place in the airline’s end-of-year calendar as an incentive; removing the onboard toilets; and getting rid of the co-pilot.
But even those outlandish suggestions haven’t caused anywhere near the clamour that the pay-as-you-weigh scheme has. American airlines have tended to treat obesity as a medical condition in the past — which is understandable in a country where over a third of adults are significantly overweight. So don’t expect to see changes there any time soon.
But what about the Gulf, which, arguably, has even more to worry about than America? According to recent data from the Visual.ly website, using data from the World Health Organisation, Kuwait is now the fattest country in the world, just beating out the US. The UAE placed eighth, and Saudi Arabia placed seventeenth. Overeating is leading to higher incidence of diabetes; roughly one in every five GCC national is diabetic — and the expats aren’t exactly shedding the pounds either. No-one is suggesting that a pay-as-you-weigh scheme is the panacea to the Gulf’s girth problem, but is it time for a regional airline to take a stand?
Ed Attwood is the Editor of Arabian Business.