Pay-What-You-Weigh Airfare?

April 4th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

An economist suggests an unorthodox way to balance out airfares.

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In 2002, when Southwest Airlines began trying to enforce a long-standing policy of charging overweight passengers for two seats, it sparked a furor among some airline passengers. Now, a professor in Norway is proposing an entire system where a passenger’s weight is directly linked to what they pay for airfare.

Bharat P. Bhatta of the Sogn og Fjordane University College in Norway recently wrote in the Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management that a pay-what-you-weigh airline pricing scheme “is a universally accepted principle, not only in transportation, but also in other services. As weight and space are far more important in aviation than other modes of transport, airlines should take this into account when pricing their tickets.” In his study, “Pay-As-You-Weigh Pricing of an Air Ticket: Economics and Major Issues for Discussions and Investigations,” he argues for heavier passengers to pay more for travel, and lighter passengers to pay less – even suggesting some possible pricing schemes.

In an interview with NBC News, Bhatta pointed out that it not only takes more fuel to transport heavier people, but also that obese fliers produce more wear and tear on airline seats, so they should be charged more than lighter passengers.

Many airlines prefer to work with larger passengers on a case-by-case basis, though in 2009, United Airlines announced it would formalize a policy whereby passengers who are unable to fit safely into one seat must pay full price for a second seat. (Southwest’s policy has always refunded the cost of the second seat if a flight isn’t sold out). The same year, European discount carrier Ryanair said it was considering a “fat tax” after an online survey it conducted revealed that a third of the 100,000 voters were in favor of it. Canada has taken the opposite approach, prohibiting airlines from charging more for overweight passengers based on the idea that obesity is a medical disability.

The difference between Bhatta’s proposal and any other to date is the discount for lighter passengers. A one-way plan that penalizes larger passengers, he writes, can benefit only the airlines while harming passengers. The best option, he wrote, is to charge a basic fare for a passenger of an average weight, but a discount below a certain amount and an extra fare above. Bhatta insists that a reduction of one kilogram of weight in a plane can result in fuel savings worth $3,000 a year and a reduction of CO2 emissions.

Still, he admits there are problems with the idea. The “high/average/low” pricing scheme would incur huge transaction costs and require passengers to arrive much earlier to get through weigh-in, security and passport control.

But, Bhatta emphasized, he’s coming at this problem in terms of pure economics. And while he believes the airlines will move closer and closer to weight-based schemes, it could be “potentially contentious because it may be viewed as discriminatory against heavier people.” I see a host of other consequences, such as, conversely, rewarding people to lose weight in an unhealthy manner.

Is there some merit to developing a pay-as-you-weigh pricing scheme? (After all, there is a historic basis for weighing passengers before boarding, and Samoa Air already charges larger passengers more.) Or is this a case of an academic out of touch with the social costs of a program that’s economically sound on paper?