Airline fares: Pay according to your weight?

An economist in Norway says airlines should charge passengers according to their weight — extra for obese flyers and discounts for those who weigh less than average.

An economist is recommending that airlines charge overweight passengers more and lighter ones less, but the "pay as you weigh" plan may not fly with consumers.

While many airlines already ask "passengers of size" to pay for an extra seat, none is known to give discounted fares to passengers who weigh less than average.

Bharat P. Bhatta, an associate professor at Sogn og Fjordane University College in Norway, proposed the pricing plan in a study published this month in the Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management.

He said heavier passengers cause an airplane to weigh more, forcing aircraft to use more fuel. Charging passengers according to weight could lead to health benefits for passengers, plus financial and environmental savings for the aviation industry, Bhatta said.

"Charging according to weight and space is a universally accepted principle, not only in transportation, but also in other services. As weight and space are far more important in aviation than other modes of transport, airlines should take this into account when pricing their tickets,” he said.

Heavier passengers could pay more to fly under new proposal

Heavier passengers could pay more to fly under new proposal
Duration: 1:52 Views: 686 MSN News/Newsy

Airlines have long wrestled with how to handle oversized passengers who can't fit comfortably in a 17-inch-wide economy-class airplane seat. In recent years the issue has become more acute as the cost of fuel has risen and as more people, especially in the U.S., become obese.

There is no standard industrywide policy in the U.S. and some airlines prefer to deal with larger passengers on a case-by-case basis.

In 2009, United Airlines reignited the debate when it announced it was formalizing a policy that says passengers who are unable to safely fit into one seat must pay full price for a second seat. Seven years earlier, Southwest Airlines announced it would begin enforcing a 22-year-old policy requiring that larger passengers who can't lower their armrests purchase tickets for two seats. Southwest will refund the cost of the second seat if a flight isn't sold out.

United Airlines did not immediately respond to a request from MSN News for comment on Monday about Bhatta's proposal. A Southwest Airlines official declined comment.

Also in 2009, European discount carrier Ryanair said it was considering a "fat tax" after an online survey it conducted found a third of the 100,000 people who voted favored such an idea. After a consumer backlash, the airline backpedaled, saying there was no way to collect such a surcharge without disrupting its quick turnaround times and its online check-in process.

Canada, meanwhile, has taken an opposite approach, treating obesity as a medical disability and prohibiting airlines from charging overweight passengers for an extra seat. Air Canada, for example, provides overweight passengers with a free extra seat as long as they present a doctor's note.

Bhatta said he is not a fan of any fare policy that charges heavier passengers more but does not give a discount to lighter passengers. That one-way plan, he said, can benefit only the airlines while harming passengers.

He said the option "most suitable for implementation" would be to charge the same fare if the passenger has an average weight, but a discount below a certain limit and an extra fare above the limit.

Such a plan "may provide significant benefits to airlines, passengers and society at large, not just economic transfers," Bhatta wrote.

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Consumer advocate and journalist Christopher Elliott said a pay-as-you-weigh approach probably wouldn't benefit consumers and would be impractical to implement.

Imagine, for example, stepping on a scale before boarding. On some smaller planes, where weight load has to be balanced for safe flying, that's already happening. But on large planes carrying hundreds of passengers, enforcement becomes a nightmare.

"It makes sense if you're dealing with cargo. If cargo is heavier, you pay more. It gets lost in the translation if you're dealing with people," Elliott told MSN News. 

"There are airlines that are out there that would like to treat their passengers like cargo, but at end of day they are not."

For cash-strapped airlines, Elliott said, "it isn't so much rewarding people who are less heavy, it's penalizing people who are heavier. That’s ancillary revenue, more money they can pocket."

And then there's the discrimination argument.

"If it's the person in the middle seat, they may say yes, make them (large passengers) pay more. But if you're a person who is morbidly obese and have tried every remedy, they might say this is discriminatory."

James Zervios, spokesman for the Obesity Action Coalition agreed.

"The proposed measures from the economist are not realistic and only further stigmatize individuals affected by obesity," Zervios said in an email to MSN News.

The coalition recommends that airlines take several actions in dealing with obese passengers, including: making it easier to purchase a second seat online, moving the process of assessing whether a person requires an additional seat to a private room and sensitivity training for airline employees.

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