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No joke: Airfare by weight might just fly

Josh Noel

Tribune Travels

10:26 PM EDT, April 7, 2013

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News of Samoa Air charging passengers by the pound, rather than by the seat, came so suddenly that some people thought it was an April Fools' Day joke. Not only was the announcement no joke — the airline hadn't retracted it by press time — it eventually could become an industry standard.

For decades, passengers have viewed what they're buying from airlines as a seat on a plane. More accurately, a flier is buying a portion of a finite amount of space and weight that each plane can accommodate.

Simply, more weight requires more fuel. It's one reason that planes have gone to extreme lengths to lighten their loads — for instance, carrying less food and fewer magazines.

Such realities also are why the air cargo business has been more lucrative than passenger flights; shipping prices at companies such as UPS are set by "dimensional weighting," which includes size and weight. As one expert said, sending a pound of feathers will be more costly than shipping a pound of gold because it requires more space.

"The aircraft can only carry a certain weight a certain distance," said airline consultant Robert Mann, of Port Washington, N.Y. "The minute someone decided passengers should be charged per seat, they suboptimized their ability to develop revenue."

Charging passengers by weight rather than by the seat has been an industry discussion since fuel prices shot up about five years ago. But tiny Samoa Air, established in 2012 as the national carrier for that group of islands, appears to be the first intending to do it.

According to the airline's website, passengers enter an estimated weight of themselves and their baggage when booking online. They are reweighed at the airport to confirm the estimate.

While it's impossible to say if American airlines could follow suit, several industry experts said it would make sense. Even though he said he is 6 foot 5 inches and about 265 pounds, Mann wouldn't be opposed. "The physics make it fair," he said. "An aircraft can only carry a certain weight a certain distance. My kids would pay less, and as a family we'd pay less."

The hurdles are obvious — the primary one being public opinion. "It would be doable, but it would be a nightmare," said George Hobica, founder of Airfare Watchdog, who was among those initially assuming Samoa Air's plan was a prank. "I don't think we'll ever see it on a large scale in the United States. Maybe a small airline, like Samoa Air or Great Lakes Airlines, could do it. For a major airline, no."

But there may be an increased push. In recent weeks, a Norwegian economist published an article in the Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management arguing that airlines should charge passengers by weight. The economist, Bharat P. Bhatta, suggested three models: charging a per-pound fare, as Samoa is doing; charging a base fare with cost added or subtracted depending on weight; and a base fare for fliers with "average" weights, and a surcharge or discount depending on whether a passenger is above or below average weight.

Paul Hudson, president of FlyersRights.org, said he wouldn't necessarily oppose charging by weight, especially with sufficient oversight from the federal Department of Transportation.

"It would only be reasonable if they charged less if you weigh less," he said. "I think there would be a backlash by passengers if it was a one-way street" where only heavier passengers were up-charged while people weighing less were not given a price break.

jbnoel@tribune.com