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Airline to Charge Passengers by Weight

Samoa Air, the national airline of Samoa, has become the first carrier to charge passengers by body weight. According to a report in The Sydney Morning Herald, the airline introduced a pricing scheme based on the weight of passengers and their bags. This news comes just a week after a doctor publicly opined that airlines should link pricing with poundage, as, essentially, the heavier an object, the more fuel it needs to fly.

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A statement on the Samoa Air website reads, "Your weight plus your baggage items is what you pay for. Simple. The Sky's the Limit!" When booking, passengers are prompted to enter the estimated weight of their bodies plus their baggage. Be honest! Samoa Air promises to weigh you again at the airport. A rigorous juice cleanse prior to your trip might be wise.

Samoa Air only flies within Samoa and American Samoa, and base rates vary by distance. I tested prices for a trip from Pago Pago to Faleolo. The airline charged me 424 tala each way (about $185, according to xe.com) when I entered a body weight of 150 lbs. and a bag weight of 50 lbs. I changed my body weight to 250 lbs. plus a 50-pound bag and the price jumped to 636 tala, or about $277.

To be weighed in front of airline staff at the airport and assessed a price based on one's struggles with calorie control feels cruel. Chris Langton, chief executive of Samoa Air, describes it as "fair." Langton gave this statement on ABC Radio: "This is the fairest way of traveling. There are no extra fees in terms of excess baggage or anything—it is just a kilo is a kilo is a kilo." Langton argued that his airline's pricing system might raise awareness of health issues, too. Naturally, the best way to warn overweight people that their health is at risk is to charge them more when they fly. 

Langton's policy change has also raised awareness of his airline. Media outlets around the world have picked up this story, drawing international attention to one very small carrier. I smell a publicity stunt, although I'll admit that a pay-by-weight scheme might make some sense for a small airline. The Samoa Air fleet is comprised of tiny 12-seater planes, so passengers and bags take up a larger proportion of total mass than they would on bigger airplanes. Operators of bush planes and light aircraft already factor in passenger weight before taking off.

This is a likely win-win for Samoa Air. But, despite Langoton's promise that pay-by-weight is "the concept of the future," I don't see major airlines following suit. The problems such a pricing structure would raise for a big airline are endless, from the complications that would come with weighing hundreds of thousands of passengers in airports to the untold customer-service and ethical issues that would arise.

Consumer advocate Ed Perkins agrees. According to Perkins, the large-passenger problem is about volume, not weight. "Except at the extremes of their range, modern jetliners' capacity is limited by the volume occupied by the payload and the cabin-floor area required for seating, not weight. That's why airlines can keep stuffing more seats into their economy cabins without worrying about the weight. Yes, small turboprops and piston planes are often weight limited, and you may see operators of those planes charge by weight, but not the big jets."

Do you think pay-by-weight pricing is fair?

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(Photo: Large Man via Shutterstock)

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