A Samoan airline has become the first carrier to charge passengers by the pound. Writer Chris Torney looks at whether this policy could catch on in Europe.
Well that didn’t take long.
Less than a fortnight ago I predicted that no airline would be foolish enough to set ticket prices according to their passengers’ weights.
But a Samoan carrier appears to have done exactly that.
Samoa Air has decided to introduce a policy which requires travellers to declare their total weight – including luggage – when booking flights.
Benefits of a ‘fat tax’
This follows reports of an academic paper written by Norway-based economist Dr Bharat Bhatta exploring the potential benefits to airlines of setting ticket prices in line with how heavy their customers are – essentially, a type of "fat tax".
Dr Bhatta argued that ticket prices do not accurately reflect the cost to an airline of transporting passengers, because people pay the same amount regardless of how much they weigh.
This is the argument Samoa Air has used in introducing its new policy.
The airline’s boss Chris Langton told an Australian radio station: "Airlines don't run on seats, they run on weight.
"People are generally a little bit bigger, wider and taller than they were 40 to 50 years ago."
How the Samoa Air scheme works
When booking their tickets in advance Samoa Air customers now have to tell the airline how much they weigh, as well as the weight of their luggage.
But this is no honour system: individuals will be put on the scales when they check in to make sure their own calculations are accurate.
The price is based on the overall weight, and heavier passengers are more likely to get roomier seats.
The company points out that the policy is likely to work in favour of families, who should end up paying less for their children’s fares.
Could it happen here?
Few of us are likely to be regular Samoa Air customers, so the big question is: how likely is this kind of pay-as-you-weigh approach to be introduced into the UK and Europe?
Well there are a number of factors particular to Samoa Air which help explain why it has become a fat-tax pioneer.
Samoa and the other south Pacific destinations the airline serves – such as Tonga and the Cook Islands – are countries with higher-than-average proportions of overweight and obese inhabitants.
Samoa Air is more likely therefore to have experienced problems such as passengers being unable to fit in standard seats, inconveniencing them and those sitting nearby.
The firm must also have resented having to charge a 20-stone adult the same ticket price as a five-year-old weighing a quarter of that.
In a case such as this, the fat tax does of course make more economic sense: by charging larger people more, the company can justify giving them more space.
And some of these problems are made more acute by the fact that Samoa Air runs smaller planes.
As Langton pointed out: "The smaller the aircraft you are in, the less variance you can accept in terms of the difference in weight between passengers."
Few European airlines are facing exactly these issues. But nonetheless, there does seem to be public support – in the UK at least – for charging heavier passengers more to fly.
Many of those who commented on our original fat tax article were in favour of setting ticket prices according to weight, although this was often due to the space that overweight people take up on cramped flights.
Some carriers already have a solution to this specific problem.
On Southwest in the US, for example, passengers who think they will "encroach on neighbouring seats" are asked to pay for an extra place. Refunds are given if the flight isn’t fully booked.
This approach seems much less controversial than a fat tax – and much more likely to be adopted by airlines in the UK and Europe.
What do you think?
If you weigh more should you pay more for an airline ticket?
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