Why Pay-by-the-Pound for Flights Will Never Work – Maybe

You may have heard about a new academic study published by a Norwegian economist who advocates what is essentially a pay-by-the-pound model for airline ticket pricing (or what Dr. Bharat Bhatta calls, Pay-as-You-Weigh). This is not the first time such a suggestion has been made.

Last year, a former Qantas exec advocated a similar “fat tax” for overweight passengers – an idea that went nowhere. So will this one, most likely, for a host of reasons.

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Logistical Nightmare

“This idea is interesting to have a mock debate over but is not rooted in reality,” says air travel analyst Rick Seaney. He went on to say that assuming one could get a major carrier to step out on a limb and execute and administer such a program, the logistics would be untenable. “Don’t forget,” he added, “that the logistics of implementing all those airline baggage fees took years.”

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Passenger Embarrassment

Another factor is the likelihood of passenger resistance due to anger or embarrassment. We’ve heard plenty of stories already about negative reactions to airline “too fat to fly” policies. One of the more notable incidents was Hollywood director Kevin Smith’s fabled Twitter rant after Southwest* removed him from a flight ostensibly because he needed two seats instead of one.

Also, if airlines set up scales at gates, who among us would be brave enough to step on them? In the study, Dr. Bhatta states that “the current fare system does not give any incentive to typically heavier passengers to lose their body weight” which is true enough, but is public shaming the answer?

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Fat and Fuel

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention more than one-third of all adults in the United States are obese (35.7%) and as the study notes, that weighs heavily – cost-wise – on the airlines: “For an airline, it is more beneficial to fly lighter people because a plane can accommodate more people and burn less fuel while also reducing wear and tear of seats.” One of the reasons the Dreamliner was so widely anticipated – and why its grounding caused such anguish – is its light-weight, unusually fuel-efficient design.

Interestingly, about a year ago, Allegiant petitioned to allow daily airfare changes based on the day’s price of oil. That idea, which sounded like yet another logistical nightmare, also apparently went nowhere.

*Editor’s note: FareCompare contacted Southwest about this new study, saying “We know you probably don’t want to touch this topic with a 10-foot pole” – and indeed we were not surprised when the airline responded with a politely-worded “no comment.”

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Published: March 26, 2013