Charging airline passengers by their weight is the concept of the future, Samoa Air's chief executive, Chris Langton, said this week. In reality, however, the idea already exists. Charging according to weight and space is a universally accepted principle both in transport and other services. On that basis, only in the airline industry did Samoa Air's supposedly revolutionary decision to charge its passengers in the same manner break new ground.
What it did breach was the worldwide trend towards accommodating the increasing number of obese people, rather than penalising them for any problems their weight created. Boston's emergency services, for example, have unveiled a special ambulance for the obese. In Australia, the Royal Adelaide Hospital has installed bigger rooms with lifting apparatus and reinforced wheelchairs and beds to cope with the influx of overweight patients. Supporters of such responses praise their sensitivity. Samoa Air is flying in the face of this.
Indisputably, however, it has both logic and fairness on its side. Airlines do not run on seats; they run on weight. For airlines, every extra passenger kilogram means more jet fuel must be burned. That is of increasing importance not only for an airline's finances in a highly competitive industry but for the environment because of the carbon dioxide emissions. Therefore, fuel consumption has become a dominant factor. The quest for every aircraft designer is to come up with new shapes and structures that cut its use.
More immediately, airline executives must find ways to offset the cost of that fuel.
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Some airlines, including Air France and KLM, already demand that obese passengers buy a second seat. Late last year, Air New Zealand introduced higher excess baggage fees. But the better approach is to weigh passengers with all their baggage and charge them extra if they exceed a certain weight.
This means the cost of extra fuel consumption is met by those responsible, not by a lifting of fares that affects every passenger. This is what Samoa Air is doing with its "pay only what you weigh" scheme. People wanting to travel with the airline must submit an estimate of their weight, including their baggage, when booking. This calculation is verified at the airport, a procedure that should require little more than a glance at the check-in desk unless a passenger is seeking to cheat the system.
If there is a jarring aspect to the airline's initiative, it is the way it has sought to associate the policy with improving public health. In a country in which 80 per cent of the population aged 15 and over is considered overweight, there may be a small raising of the awareness of the problem. But that is very much secondary to the aim of increasing airline profitability at a time when people worldwide are weighing more. Samoa Air should have been upfront in admitting as much from the start.
Mr Langton is right, however, to suggest the airline's policy is the way of the future. Or should be. As in other facets of transport, it makes sense to charge passengers according to their weight and that of all their luggage. A series of weight bands should be relatively simple for airlines to administer. Heavier passengers will pay more for their tickets and lighter passengers will travel for less. Airline fares will, indeed, be fairer.