News that Samoa Air is to begin charging passengers by weight, rather than simply per seat, has rocked the aviation world -- and created an excuse for lots of puns. This week, I abandon my usual round-up of the Top 20 (our newsletter of unbeatable travel deals online -- go straight to it here) to dwell upon this radical news.
Not that it’s a complete shock: Ryanair (who else?) proposed charging fatter passengers extra back in 2009, supposedly spurred by numerous suggestions from its own passengers. More, shall we say, aerodynamic fliers could benefit by having their own fares cut proportionately, the airline said at the time, although there was no suggestion of relief from what tends -- literally -- to be a more pressing concern when you’re aloft: having half your seat space consumed by the supersize passenger bulging out of his allocated 17 inches next door.
A fat tax would, surely, have to be really punitive to stop people flying altogether, rather than, as the saintly airline suggested, merely encouraging them to think about their weight.
However, if the news hasn’t come (plummeting) out of the blue, Samoa’s trailblazing for kilo-tied charging might be more unexpected. Why Samoa? Put simply, this is not Lilliput. The Samoans aren’t, in fact, the heaviest people on Earth: that status belongs to their near-neighbours, the Micronesians, where the average individual weighs a thumping 87kg. But Samoa, in fifth place behind Tonga and, yes, the US, isn’t far behind. It’s a pretty safe bet, then, that a plane-load of Samoans is likely to weigh considerably more than, say, a bunch of airborne Bangladeshis, who, being the lightest human beings on Earth, would weigh almost half.
When you combine that solid statistic with the realisation that Air Samoa’s fleet comprises three-to-nine-seat passenger planes, rather than enormous 747s, you can see why a passenger’s weight could have a considerable financial impact on the airline.
So how likely are other carriers, with considerably larger aircraft, to follow suit? Not terribly, or at least not all at once, going by the comments of one aviation industry expert, Trevor Bock, to The Age newspaper in Australia in the wake of the Samoan news. Fat passengers do not cost most airlines “a significant amount of money”, Mr Bock said. On the other hand, surveys suggest that airlines such as Ryanair could indeed find considerable support from passengers for a levy on their fellow, broader flyers. In one study last year, the travel firm HolidayExtras.com found that nearly half of holidaymakers agreed with the idea of charging overweight passengers extra. (Men, by the way, were about 10% more likely to agree than women.)
Other trends, finally, also appear to be militating against chubby passengers. In news this month, Delta airlines announced that its new onboard lavatories will be even smaller than the 3-by-3-foot cupboards into which we currently squeeze.
But do such straightforward explanations fully explain our picking on the fatter flier? Or could it just be a grown-up version of prodding the bigger kid in the schoolyard?