April 22, 2013 at 10:56 AM ET
Americans are getting bigger; airplanes are flying fuller, and the price of jet fuel remains stubbornly high. Is the solution to too many "seatmates of size" to weigh passengers in the terminal?
According to a public opinion survey by YouGov, an Internet market research company, 4 in 10 Americans say they wouldn't mind being publicly weighed at the airport. Conducted April 12–14, the results suggest that a once-unthinkable concept could become a fact of life for fliers.
“The airlines are always looking to reduce weight or the cost of carrying it,” said YouGov Senior Vice President Ray Martin, “and we’re finding that more people don’t seem to mind the concept.”
One airline, in fact, has already begun charging by the combined weight of passengers and their baggage. With a fleet of small planes and a local population with the highest obesity rates in the world, Samoa Air now charges passengers 93 cents to $1.06 per kilogram, depending on the flight.
“If Samoa Air can do it, then there’s scope for other airlines to follow suit,” said Martin, adding that “whoever it does it first is going to take the flak.”
They’d also take the brunt of any claims of discrimination: “If you’re going to treat people like freight, then you have to accommodate those people the way freight carriers do,” said Peggy Howell, spokesperson for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA).
“Freight carriers don’t try to fit a big box into a space the size of a 17-inch seat,” she told NBC News. “Are airlines going to reconfigure their planes so you have small, medium and large seats for passengers of different weights? Anything less would be discriminatory.”
As for the 40 percent of people who favor pre-flight weigh-ins, they might give new meaning to the phrase "penny wise, pound foolish." For airlines operating hundreds of flights and carrying thousands of passengers per day, implementation would likely be a nightmare, says George Hobica of AirfareWatchdog.com.
“You’d have to get to the airport two or three hours early; flights would be delayed, and you’d need more staff so it could lead to higher fares,” he told NBC News. "People just think they don't want fat people on planes but it would slow everything down — and planes on the ground don't make money."
A more sensible approach, says Hobica, would be for airlines to enforce so-called second-seat rules in which passengers are charged for a second seat if they can’t fit in a single seat with the armrest down. Such policies vary from airline to airline and are often inconsistently applied, which can further aggravate what is already an uncomfortable situation for all concerned.
In fact, according to Martin, 63 percent of survey respondents agreed that passengers should be required to buy a second seat if they couldn’t fit in a single seat with the armrest down.
“If you pay money for a seat, you expect to have use of all of it,” he said, “and even larger people said that if you don’t fit into one seat, you should pay.”
And that, suggests Martin, could be a first small step toward pay-by-the-pound flying beyond the South Pacific: “People are already comfortable with the two-seat concept,” he told NBC News. “That could be the way for the airlines to move along toward the point where they start weighing people.”
Hobica, on the other hand, says it will never happen, although he does see one potential benefit if the idea ever becomes standard operating procedure.
"A lot of people don't even weigh themselves once a year," he said. "It could be a good reality check for people and good for the health of the American public.
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.