Overview of the `Pay-by-Weight' on Airlines
Ordinarily, airlines have been charging passengers as per seats rather than their body
weight. However, this approach began experiencing opposition in the past decade. It is im-
perative that the airline industry is entangled in the globalization paradox (Thomas, 2011).
The idea of charging passengers based on their weight emerged after economists in the avia-
tion industry discovered a significant increase in fuel cost that was attributable to flying obese
In a nutshell, the issue of introducing `pay-by-weight' system in the aviation industry
has been sparked by the arguments of just three experts: Tony Webber, Bharat P. Bhatta and
Peter Singer. It is apparent that opinions of these experts have influenced the way in which
airlines view pricing of flights.
It all began with Tony Webber, who investigated changes in average body weight of
people flying with Qantas, the Australian airline. Webber, who worked with the airline as the
chief economist identified average weight increase since 2000 and calculated the correlated
fuel cost. In his findings, he noticed that the average weight of adults increased by two kilo-
grams; thus, increasing fuel cost. He interpreted these changes to be the reason for the air-
line's decreasing profits. Webber hypothesized the fuel cost of flying Airbus A380 from Syd-
ney to London in which he estimated the extra fuel cost at $472. Flying the airline in this
route in both directions for a year meant incurring an additional fuel cost of $1 million. This
additional cost accounts for 13% of Qantas profit. Following his investigations, Webber sug-
gested that airlines should set a standard passenger weight to counter the increasing fuel cost.
For instance, he gave an empirical weight of 75 kilograms as the standard weight. This im-
plies that a passenger weighing 100 kilograms will be considered to be overweight by 25 kil-
ograms, and this attracts a surcharge of $29 to fly from Sydney to London. On the other hand,
a passenger with 50 kilograms body weight would be discounted the same amount. The se-
cond suggestion for Webber was to set a standard weight that will have passengers weighed
on scales with their luggage, and then charged collectively (Singer, 2012).
This proposal gained immense popularity after Peter Singer, an ethicist supported
Webber's idea by highlighting the reasons for introducing a `pay-by-weight' system on air-
lines. Singer discussed the costs imposed to others by obese people, in order to justify as an
ethical issue. In support of Webber's argument, Singer reaffirmed that people are getting fat-
ter all over the world with developed countries carrying the highest burden of obesity. He
sarcastically refers to the manner of movement associated to fat people as waddling rather
than walking (Singer, 2012).
According to Singer, obesity has adverse consequences to the society, as well as the
environment. Therefore, he agrees that surcharging passengers for extra weight will be a fair
deal because it will reflect and individual's true cost of flight. In turn, the `pay-by-weight'
system will relieve fellow passengers from incurring extra costs on obese people. As such,
Singer downplays the ethics that the new system is a discriminatory act. Ideally, Singer advo-
cates for the introduction of public policies that discourage people from gaining weight, in
order to reduce the extra cost imposed on others in the society. This is why he supports the
`pay-by-weight' system in the aviation industry.
Scientific inquiry has also exacerbated the debate on `pay-by-weight' pricing policies
on airlines. In November 2012, Bharat Bhatta, a Norway based economist published an arti-
cle on the fat-taxes that aroused academic inquiry. Bhatta's approach was to solve the chal-
lenges involved in introducing the `pay-by-weight' system in the aviation industry
(Alemanno, 2013). In his article, he claimed that airlines do not exercise fairness in charging
passengers under the current fare policy. This is so because all passengers pay an `average
price' regardless of their body weight. In this system, costs are distributed among passengers.
This implies that passengers who have low weight such as 40 kilograms pay extra cost to
compensate the extra weight of obese passengers. In order to address this indifference in cost
distribution, Bhatta suggested that the adoption of the current fare policy on airlines will en-
sure that passengers pay based on their baggage. He suggested three principal approaches
through which airlines can implement the new fare model. The first method is the adoption of
price per kilogram charging that is considered as a straightforward approach. The second ap-
proach is surcharging heavier passengers and discounting the lighter ones, whereas the third
method is setting fares in three bands of passengers as light, normal and heavy (Bhatta,
Following these controversial perspectives, it seems some airlines are pleased by the
idea of introducing the `pay-by-weight' pricing policy. This aspect has been evidenced by the
approach by Samoa Air. On April 1, 2013, Samoa Air announced what many people believed
to be an April-pool joke. Contrary to the expectations of many, Samoa Air switched to the
`pay-by-weight' system. As such, it has become the first airline to adopt the new fare system
in the world. Under the new fare system, the fare charged correlates with the passengers'
weight and luggage, and this is considered as a fair deal (Davies, 2013).
According to critical analysis by aviation experts, this new system might work due to
a number of reasons, but it appears unpractical for large airlines. One of the key reasons why
`pay-by-weight' system works with Samoa Air is that the airline operates short flight air-
crafts. These aircrafts carry a dozen passengers; thus, logistical problems are not encountered
in weighing each person. The second reason why the system might work with Samoa Air is
the raising trends of obesity in the American Samoa region. It is reported that obesity has
become an immense problem because two-thirds of the U.S. population is overweight or
obese. Therefore, obesity has already become an ethical problem in the region. This implies
that any public policy that seems to address the problems is reasonable. In this case, light-
weight passengers are shielded from the adverse effects of obesity crisis in the region.
It is apparent that the adoption of the `pay-by-weight' system by Samoa Air has creat-
ed a tempting idea for other airlines. Some airlines are considering switching to the new fare
system as one of the ways of recouping the extra fuel cost that seem to slim the profit mar-
gins. For instance, the `customers of size' policy adopted by Southwest Airlines appears to be
a replica of the `pay-by-weight' policy. Under the `customers of size' policy, the extra size of
a passenger is determined by the armrests. Those who cannot fit between the armrests are
considered to exceed the size of a conventional seat. As such, they are required to purchase
another seat, in order to occupy a space of two seats (Davies, 2013).
Despite these approaches towards the adoption of the `pay-by-weight' system, some
airlines have expressed objection to it. For instance, EasyJet and Ryanair have already dis-
carded the new idea (Davies, 2013). It is also likely that large carriers will not accept the new
system because it is associated to an array of problems including legal and logistic issues.
Policies Related to `Pay-by-Weight' Policy
Currently, there are no clearly communicated public policies related to obese passen-
gers. In the United States, policies related to seats for obese people are set by airlines, but
they are not protected by the constitutional law. This lack of a legal guideline on setting air-
line fares appears to be the most stabling block to the new approach of `pay-by-weight' sys-
tem. In contrast, rights of obese people are protected by most constitutions under the disabil-
ity legislations. For instance, the Canadian judicial system prohibits discrimination based on
body weight. In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that imposing extra fares on passengers who
are differently-abled is a form of discrimination. As such, obese people are considered to be
among the differently-abled people. In its landmark ruling on extra fares, the court upheld the
Excerpt out of 9 pages
- Quote paper
- Patrick Kimuyu (Author), 2018, Ethical issues regarding the charging of overweight people on airplanes. The "pay-by-weight" policy, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/387501