The recent decision by Samoa Air to begin charging passengers according to their weight has me thinking.
From the airline’s point of view I can see the pure commercial argument behind the decision. Fuel is linked to aircraft weight and fuel costs are skyrocketing. Paying for what you consume is free market capitalism at its purest so if you’re forcing the airline to consume more fuel you should bear the burden – right?
Take me for instance. I’m not as slim as I once was (middle age does that). When I sit in a modern economy class seat, my hips sometimes touch the sides. Let’s not forget that these days, 16-inch wide seats are entirely possible. And that’s a snug fit even for an average person.
So should I be paying more? I mean – where exactly do you start?
Do you charge passengers who are a little overweight? A lot? What is the cutoff weight? What about a clinically obese person who qualifies as disabled?
And what about the cause of the weight? You might be pregnant with triplets and that could put you over the limit. And if you’re not fat but an athlete with major body mass, are you penalized? Will 120kg on a fat person be treated differently than 120kg that’s mostly muscle? Men are heavier than women on average – should they pay more? And if you’re tall you’re probably heavier. It’s bad enough to have to fold your legs magically in your tiny seat but hey, now you get to pay for the privilege.
Proponents of these extra airline charges use the freedom card to back up their arguments – their freedom to have an entire seat to themselves without a large person overflowing into their space, for example.
But what about freedom from screaming children, then? Or my right not to be bisected by a food tray when the person in front of me violently slams the seat back without even looking?
Forget common sense for a moment and think ethics. There’s an elephant in the room and it’s called weight discrimination. We know it’s there, whether in the world of fashion or work or in social settings. But we rarely dare speak its name and that’s why the Samoa Air policy has tongues wagging.
From discrimination flows stigma. Imagine the looks some unfortunate traveler might be getting at check-in when the passenger agent eyes them up and down, mentally calculating how much extra they’re costing the airline before herding them towards the public scale.
“Two seats here,” he yells. “Got a 200-pounder coming in!”
You can see the PR disaster, can’t you? Not to mention the human one.
The issue of oversize passengers isn’t new. Airlines have tried to deal with it before. Some force larger travelers to buy two seats, others warn they’ll have to take another flight if the plane is full. Lawsuits have been filed and won by passengers so most airlines keep their size and weight policies discreet at best and at worst, they ignore the question altogether. Until someone like Samoa Air breaks ranks and airs this laundry out in the open.
Certainly airlines could add a couple of large-size seats on their aircraft to accommodate the less slim, but that costs money. Instead of trying to acknowledge that average human size is increasing, both vertically and diametrically, they’ve – shrunk available space! Never have airline seats been so small and tight and legroom so limited and rarely have passengers been so grumpy.
Flying is already one of the most uncivilized group activities on the planet; it can only be made worse by discriminating against or embarrassing selected passengers.
Samoa Air’s policy – if it lasts – may be a financial winner for the airline. Samoa, after all, is one of the world’s heaviest countries, with an 85.2% prevalence of obesity, according to the World Health Organization.
Or it could be an unmitigated public relations fiasco, branding it ‘the airline that hates fat people.’ In Samoa, that may not be a winner.
What do you think? Should people lose the weight to fly more cheaply or should airlines bite the bullet and lose the money? Please comment below.