Airlines charging by the pound (including your personal weight); good idea?

business and consumers, travel

My friend Greg and I just had a fascinating and extensive discussion about the concept of airlines charging their customers by the weight of their bodies + luggage.

The way we envisioned it, all airlines tickets would be composed of exactly two fees: a seat fee (fixed) and a weight fee (variable).  This is hardly our original idea; I’ve seen similar suggestions pondered on the web before.  But nonetheless, I thought it’d be interesting to reflect upon some implementation ideas as well as pros and cons.

Implementation

  • Get estimates up front.
    Ask for estimated weight in airfare comparison sites and airline sites to avoid shock and extra processing work at the airport.
  • Get money up front.
    Collect money for seat fee plus weight fee upon booking.  Offer a refund for cases in which people overestimate their weight.  Levy strong surcharges (e.g., 25%) for those who significantly underestimate their weight.
  • Be discreet about each individual’s weight.
    Present a total of person-weight + luggage-weight, or even just a surcharge total.
  • Price the weight fee as a pound/kilogram per mile.
    This makes sense, since extra weight costs more on a long trip than a short trip.
  • Incorporate increases and decreases in fuel costs into the $/weight charge.
    Instead of levying a separate fuel surcharge, airlines could simply increase the $/weight charge on all their flights (e.g., from $1.20 per pound-mile to $1.42 per pound mile).
  • Avoid pissing off frequent flyers re: mileage points
    Grandfather in earlier ticket purchases, and for a limited time let people redeem the same number of points for the same class of flights as before.  After that, charge something like 15,000 miles for a round trip flight (instead of 25K) + weight fee, or 25,000 miles for a round trip flight inclusive of [x] pounds/kilograms.  Establish a ratio so that for the average or median flyer, they’ll get exactly the same $/point(mile) as before.

Benefits / pros

  • Greater fairness in charges
    People who are light-weight (in body and/or luggage) will no longer subsidize those whose bulk costs the airlines appreciably more in fuel expenses.
  • Greater incentive to pack light
    This in turn may reduce luggage handling costs (fewer people and machines and conveyor belts needed) and decrease luggage delivery delays.  It’s also likely to reduce the cramping of overhead space in planes.
  • Possible extra push for people to lose weight
    Especially those folks who are both obese and frequent travelers will be incentivized to lose weight.  This will contribute to their health, and also the comfort of those flying next to them.
  • Potential optimization in seating
    Particularly if airlines request both person-weight and luggage-weight estimates from passengers, they could theoretically optimize seating for safety, fuel efficiency, and comfort (e.g., not placing too large people next to each other).
  • A potentially big revenue boost in Q4 for airlines
    Given the carriage of Thanksgiving food and Christmas gifts, airlines could see a nice bump in their income in November and December.

Disadvantages / cons

  • A huge outcry from privacy advocates
    People might be loathe to tell airlines how much they weight, and would likely be equally horrified at having to step on scales in front of others at the airport.
  • Uncertainty of final ticket price
    Many people—especially those barely scraping enough cash together for a family vacation—might be frustrated by the uncertainty of airfare prices and/or stunned and dismayed by weight overage fees levied at the airport.
  • Greater inefficiencies at the airport
    The last thing we all want is MORE delays at the airport.  Imagine the extra time required to weight every single passenger and assess extra charges (or issue refunds)… particularly to those without credit cards (yes, I know it’s hard to imagine, but there are apparently people who pay cash or write checks even for things like airfare!).
  • Claims of discrimination and unfairness
    I bet we all have at least one friend who is quite obese… perhaps even obese and financially challenged.  I can imagine that many of these folks would simply be unable to afford flying to visit family and friends with the imposition of weight fees.
  • A potential mess online
    Ultimately, it doesn’t seem that it’d be so outlandish for airfare comparison sites and airline sites to ask for folks’ weight and—using airline-provided $/weight numbers—provide total estimated costs for each flight fare inquiry.  But at least initially, there’d likely be a lot of confusion and havoc.

*  *  *

Are weight-surcharges a good idea?  Do you think the airlines would be able to successfully implement them?  And have I forgotten any key pros or cons?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this 😀

9 comments… add one
  • Matt Aug 30, 2008

    I did a similar thought experiment with some coworkers a little while ago.  My proposal was to not make all the airlines switch to this, but have just one airline switch to this model.

    When this happens, lighter people like me would switch to that airline because it would save money (I’m implicitly paying for the heavier people already). As an effect, the mean weight per passenger on the other airlines will rise, as will their cost per mile and fare prices.  Thus, only one airline would need to change to this, but in effect, heavier would people would end up paying more anyway, same as your model.

    In practice, if 1/2 of people won’t go on an airline because of this practice, you’d lose much more than half the market because people often travel in groups.

  • Dan Aug 30, 2008

    Do you have any numbers on the relative weight of (plane+fuel) vs. (passengers+luggage). I’m guessing the former is significantly greater than the latter. Plus there’s fixed costs like the pilot’s salary and the airline organization that will be unaffected.

    Until I see some numbers, color me a skeptic!

  • Adam Aug 30, 2008

    Matt, your idea is a sound one, excepting the issue of dissimilarities amongst airline routes and such.  e.g., this would only work if WeightBasedAirline offered services similar to FixedPriceAirlines, including airports served, direct flights offered, etc.

    Rocky and Dan, I had recently read that airlines were paying many many millions more in fuel costs due to the increasing weight of passengers.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember where I saw that :-(.  And yes, I’m sure the weight of the plane itself + the fixed costs of salaries and such are non-negligible expenses… but I would think that the weight of passengers plus their luggage would be pretty substantial, too.  Your point about the difficulties in discerning when to lock in weight-fees re: fuel prices is a good one, though, and I certainly don’t have a fine answer for that issue.

  • Matt Aug 30, 2008

    Adam- yes, agreed, reality is much more complex, and while one airline alone wouldn’t do it, perhaps several airlines covering a large majority of routes would be a powerful market force.  They could form a Coalition of the Weighing 🙂

  • Jerry Loggins Sep 1, 2008

    I LOVE this idea!  I think that it makes perfect sense that people (and their luggage) who weigh more are actually using more fuel than the ones who weigh less.  So right now the lighter ones are subsidizing the heavier ones.  I say let each one pay their own fair share – if your weight (of body and luggage) is heavier (and using more fuel) than you should pay more! 😎

  • Angelina Maben Sep 3, 2008

    This will force fat people to join a Fitness center. and Save the money.

  • I think this is a great idea… I am, however, a small and light woman. I imagine there will be MANY people who will have something to say about the idea! :-\ As for me.. I think it?s birlliant! 😀

  • Adam Bryson Sep 21, 2008

    I’m a large person and would not mind paying more money for my seat as long as the seat were made larger to be more comfortable. Despite the snide remarks I’m not about to start going to a gym just to save a few bucks on my airfare.

    Same suggestion for leg room. I have long legs and a flight from Atlanta to LA, or NY to London, is miserable for people with long legs. I’ll gladly pay more for additional leg room.

    And I would like a credit for each minute that I am subjected to crying babies or screaming children. Can you work that in?

  • Adam May 24, 2009

    In looking back, it’s looking like this idea never got any traction, likely due to many of the, uh, weighty factors you folks have raised here.  Thanks for the comments! 😀

What do you think?