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Fri 5 Apr 2013 11:55 AM

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Could pay-as-you weigh work?

Ed Attwood weighs the pros and cons of airlines charging more for overweight passengers

Could pay-as-you weigh work?

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.

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RAH 7 years ago

Bob Crandall's move to cut costs by removing one olive from each meal (in first class) was made in the 1987 - not in 2003, as this writer incorrectly stated.

Does no one research before writing these days?

skyobserver 7 years ago

Samoa Air is hardly representative of the main airlines, as it is a regional carrier in the Pacific.

The issue of weight is about the airline trying to secure more revenue against rising fuel costs! The size of seat offered in economy (and to some extent in Business class seat width has diminished over the years) is the crucial issue here.

Many operators (including the local airlines, such as Emirates) insist on the 'Dense' style configugurations e.g. Boeing 777 where itis laid out as being 3-4-3 across the cabin in most cases. Other operators (i.e. Singapore, British Airways) use 3-3-3, as well as a more comfortable 'Premium Economy' seat.

If airlines want to charge by weight (Not all 'heavy' passengers are Obese, but tall/muscle-bound/large boned, etc) then the airlines should provide seating that is fit for purpose rather than squeezing people into smaller seats. As individuals we dont all fit the cramped, uncomfortable seats on these flights. Choose your airline wisely!

RAH 7 years ago

"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."

According to WHO's 2010 report (published via http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/health/101118/fat-and-fatter-worlds-10-fattest-countries), Kuwait ties at spot 11 with Argentina. Nauru in the Pacific ranks 1, USA at #8.

The OECD's rankings are USA at 1 followed by Mexico, NZ then Chile. (http://www.perthnow.com.au/news/australia-fifth-fattest-country/story-e6frg12c-1226281473134)

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine's recent report launched at the UN's Rio+20 Conference (June 2012) ranks Micronesia at #1, USA #3 and Kuwait #5. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthnews/9345086/The-worlds-fattest-countries-how-do-you-compare.html

I am not saying Kuwait is thin, but journalism sensationalism is hardly a justifiable reason to grab just ONE website and slap in Kuwait is THE fattest nation on earth.

Ahmed 7 years ago

Listen RAH, regardless if you disagree with this recent survey that Kuwaitis are the fastest people on earth, if Jazeera Airways (a Kuwaiti based carrier) implemented a 'pay as you weigh' policy their profit margins are hitting the roof. Why is it that these discount carriers in the middle-east, where the scales are tipped in favor of these A320's, aren't forcing passengers that are grosely obese to pay for two seats? They can't fit into the tiny seats on these planes, so in the long run, all discount carriers in the region should be forcing passengers who are obese to pay for two seats and that would include alot of passengers from Kuwait.
In addition, maybe some carriers should offer a low calorie option to the high carb food they offer on their flights for passengers.

steve 7 years ago

I think the concept is the weight of the cargo(people) on a flight dictates the amount of fuel the aircraft can carry for a flight to get to the destination. Smaller carriers have this problem often. Even though seat size is an issue based on the size of aircraft, the real issue is the standard weight of passengers has increased over the years. If you use the standard weight of a male pax at 190 lbs and 150 male pax board, the fuel and cargo is loaded based on that pax load weight. The question is how many of the 150 adult male pax weigh 190 or less?

RBH 7 years ago

When it comes to money, businesses can be creative... and unfortunately successful in deriving new ways of requesting additional payments from the mob.