Economist predicts airlines will soon charge obese passengers more

An economics professor in Norway is predicting that airlines will start charging people based on their weight.

Considering the mania the airlines have for always finding extra “fees,” nothing is out of the question, so charging customers based on their weight no longer sounds so crazy (well, it still sounds a bit crazy, but I’d put nothing past US air carriers).

As someone who flies more in Europe than in the US, I already find US airlines tickets at the big airlines to be extremely high compared to traveling the same distance in Europe. Even worse, the Americans are always slapping on additional charges for luggage – a fee which I personally find outrageous – much like we see with the low-end European discount carriers.

Airplane via Shutterstock

Airplane via Shutterstock

At least in Europe when you’re charged for luggage or other fees, you’re paying discount rates – I’m talking 20 dollars for a flight. In the US, flying is a much more expensive venture, plus the normal unpleasantness that can only be delivered by US carriers and the humble and lovable TSA. (Normally it’s Europe that has the surly service industry, but not when you’re flying.)

Looking at this trend, an economics professor in Norway published a study that proposes three potential “pay-as-you weigh” options that could be coming in the future.

  • Fares according to actual weight, in which carriers would set a fixed rate per pound so that a person weighing 130 pounds would pay half the airfare of a 260 pound person.
  • A fixed “base fare” for average weight passengers, with airlines either charging an extra fee for heavier fliers or offering a refund to skinnier ones.
  • Three separate fares based on whether passengers are at, below, or above average weight.

Smaller people have had the same luggage weight limitations as larger people for years, even though we’re told that the weight of luggage – even going over 3 pounds – is so critical that they have to charge you another $100 or whatever.  Then why is passenger weight irrelevant, unless the luggage limits are a joke? I’ve always thought smaller people deserved the right to carry more luggage weight, if we’re going to play the “weight” game at all, but somehow it never worked out that way.

Then again, this might raise some interesting legal questions.  Women, on average, tend to weigh less than men.  Is there a legal argument for gender discrimination if the airlines routinely charge men more than women for the same seats?

Assuming we’re all in agreement that the airline industry is gouging customers, would charging per weight be fair?  It feels like it’s going too far, but at the same time, no other charge has been too much for the airline industry.

And in any case, if the airlines did charge based on customer weight, they’d simply charge overweight people more – the rest of us would never pay less.  Everything’s a new fee with these guys.


An American in Paris, France. BA in History & Political Science from Ohio State. Provided consulting services to US software startups, launching new business overseas that have both IPO’d and sold to well-known global software companies. Currently launching a new cloud-based startup. Full bio here.

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  • TimTim

    What does the TSA have to do with this? Also, good luck boycotting the the airlines.

  • TimTim

    This is a wonderful point.

  • Buddy219

    I agree fat people should pay more. If you are going to base my airfare like I was cargo,
    then treat me like cargo and give me more space. I’m fat and I’ve been buying
    two seats for over 20 years. I have never once traveled when I have purchased
    two seats that I didn’t have to defend my purchase: to flight attendants to
    insisted on siting someone in my empty seat, had a parent just place their
    child in my empty seat, or to obnoxious 20 or 30-somethings who assumed they
    could site anywhere there was an empty seat. I have had my purchase of my
    second seat refunded nearly 20 times because the flight attendant decided to
    put someone in it. I do the right thing and to put up with nonsense from skinny
    people.

  • Golden Rule

    Heavier people pay more…because they take up more resources (fuel, space, less weight for the plane to carry cargo). Why not, seems fair. Therefore lighter people are not having to subsidize the lard asses, right? Babies and women on average would always pay less, and men and older adults (most people gain weight as they age), and certain ethnic groups more.
    The argument is based on resources, then shouldn’t baby boomers pay more in taxes? Why should I as an Xer have to pay more because that cohort’s population is larger. That’s correct. I shouldn’t have to pay for the social services they consume. What about divorced people, or people who are single? studies show that married people are happier and experience less stress, and that families in a two parent household are happier (mentally and emotionally) and the kids have less stress, and therefore consume less services. We should therefore charge the divorced and single more taxes. After all, this is all about resource consumption and not what is the compassionate thing to do. Its not about how i would want to be treated if i were in their extra wide shoes. And of course those with AIDS should pay more in health care premiums. I don’t care it’s not me. And if you don’t have AIDS, but are an IDU or homosexual, then you should pay more because of your lifestyle choice. If the fatties can put down the fork, then surely they can stop that risky behavior. What should we do about the mentally challenged and handicapped? There is no real way they can pay for themselves and therefore are a drain on society. Should we dispose of them like Hitler envisioned? The self righteous arguing in favor of the proposed change can’t see beyond themselves.

  • RyansTake

    Does Rick Steves need to bring formal wear? Bathing suits? Different types of shoes?

    I don’t know this Rick Steves, but while it’s certainly possible to ‘back pack through Europe,’ it’s not possible for every vacation. I’m not going to begrudge, say, a couple on a honeymoon if they want to be able to go to a few nice restaurants during the evenings, while needing clothes and shoes that are good for walking long distances during the daytime. Etc.

  • RyansTake

    I have actually shipped luggage home while travelling domestically. Especially if you don’t have an immediately need for it, shipping can be very cheap compared to bringing extra bags or adding extra weight to your luggage during a flight.

  • Kat

    I’m not sure but most of the people that are agreeing with this cramp are more than likel underweight. I am 218 but I don’t look it because of certin body parts are bigger than some female so because of that I should be charged more. I’m sorry than they pay for me to get them smaller. But even if you are over weight it is not because you sit on your butt. You might have a health problem that hinders your chances of losing weight but gain it.

  • kmcdevitt

    Well, that’s true, unfortunately, but it’s a harder sell to tell someone 5’10” with a thirty-one inch waist who weighs 200 pounds that they are overweight and must pay more. None of which means that the airlines won’t do it. Clearly, they will do whatever they can to apply extra charges.

    I try only to fly for work trips, where it simply can’t be avoided. The entire experience has become so completely unpleasant, the only reason the airlines can stay afloat is that they have the monopoly on this service in the US.

  • liludallas

    It is a little like a progressive tax system. The more you weigh, the more you pay…The more you make, the more you pay.

  • liludallas

    It’s is kind of like a progressive tax. The more you weigh, the more you pay…the more you earn, the more you pay.

  • Tatts

    This is, largely, a matter of how much the baggage handlers can lift without risk. The quarters are cramped when they work in the luggage area of the plane and they often have to stack luggage while squatting or kneeling or bent over. and they do it all day and fast.

    I have, once, had to shift weight from an overweight checked bag to my carry-on. No biggie; it was just a couple of pounds (my scale at home read differently from theirs).

    And, come on–if Rick Steves can travel through Europe and host a TV series with nothing more than a backpack full of clothes (which he has enumerated on the show), do we really need to haul all that much stuff?

  • http://adgitadiaries.com/ karmanot

    I did that for years and it did save a lot of hassle.

  • http://poodyheads.wordpress.com/ Papa Bear

    Gotta follow the “rules”, doancha know?
    ;-)

  • Drew2u

    I’ve told this story countless times but when I flew Ryan Air, they were going to charge me to check my bag because it was over weight. Instead I went to the bathroom and threw on 7 layers of clothing. Oh, the death-glare I got from the ticket lady….

  • Drew2u

    If the airlines can make profit off of both, then why not?

  • kmcdevitt

    The issue with obese customers is volume, not weight. They take up more than one single seat. A fit person can weigh close to a comparable obese person, but still take less space.

  • HolyMoly

    Might be cheaper to pack your belongings and overnight them to the hotel at your destination. I don’t know. Just check in to your flight with no baggage, except maybe a small carry-on. Or just buy a few days’ worth of clothes at your destination. WalMarts can be found just about anywhere you go. That would DEFINITELY be cheaper.

  • nicho

    Not to mentioned those with teething or undisciplined kids.

  • HolyMoly

    “Is there a legal argument for gender discrimination if the airlines routinely charge men more than women for the same seats?”

    What about those who are genetically predisposed to obesity? Or, for that matter, is it a person’s fault if he grew to be 6′ 6″ and weighs 250 pounds (no fat), also determined by genetics? If they go that route, then they might as well charge extra fees for the mentally challenged, physically handicapped, etc., not because it costs more to transport them from Point A to Point B, but just because they HAVE to charge extra fees just for the hell of it.

    But the idea that airlines routinely pack their planes to the absolute maximum allowed weight for successful flight is nonsense. They’re not going to take chances like that. I’m sure they have a few tons of wiggle room, and a few hundred extra pounds here and there would really only make extra fuel consumption negligible…certainly not $50 or $100 per overweight passenger.

    I’m not a physicist or an expert in aerodynamics, but I’d bet that there’s a point at which added weight would be more of a drag on the plane and require greater fuel usage, but that there’s also a point on the other end, where too LITTLE weight would make it more difficult for a plane to cut through the wind resistance, thus requiring greater fuel usage. I’m pretty sure that most planes, obese passengers and all, fit comfortably in the pocket for fuel economy. (Kind of like throwing a bowling ball, a balled-up piece of paper, or a baseball…which do you think you can throw the farthest?)

  • Swami_Binkinanda

    Places I fly they make me stand on a scale then weigh my luggage; then they make you sit in different places in the plane depending on the weight and balance of the cargo. I have that same thought anyway.

  • Swami_Binkinanda

    Kevin Smith is Immense? I thought he was just festively plump.

  • Naja pallida

    A 747-400 with the maximum number of passengers and crew, with everybody on board having the maximum amount of luggage permitted would still only be at about half of its potential lifting capacity. I’m sure you’d find similar figures if you did the math on other airliners too. They operate with a significant margin for safety.

  • Clancy

    I won’t pretend that the “average” American isn’t overweight, or even obese, but it seems absurd to price tickets based on weight. Firstly, given my first statement, the customer backlash would be immense (no pun intended). Most Americans might be overweight, but they also don’t see it quite that cut and dry. It’s one thing to acknowledge that you might be fat, it’s another for an airline company to say that your ten extra pounds means you now have to pay an extra $50 for that ticket. While the other charges they’ve tacked on have been strangely accepted or endured, they also don’t seem to come with some sort of personal judgment attached to them. Charging for being overweight won’t have that luxury.

    As a much taller than average person, this concept also troubles me because my height is already a terrible disadvantage while flying. Over the last few years, the airlines charge extra for the exit row seats they used to just give me when the person checking me in realized I wouldn’t be comfortable in regular coach. Now, because I’m eight inches taller than the average man, I might also have to pay more for the extra weight that comes with being tall. Argh!

  • OtterQueen

    Seriously. I feel like I’m in a child seat now, with my knees shoved into the back of the person in front of me.

    I think it would be fine to just tell people to stand on a scale with their luggage and charge them a per pound price. Seems fair.

  • OtterQueen

    I wonder if it has to do with lifting limits for the luggage handlers?

  • silas1898

    Cargo $$$. The less passenger luggage they carry, the more extra $ they can make from cargo traffic.

  • nicho

    If the airlines would back to the seat sizes and legroom they had before deregulation, there would be no problem. The seat size and legroom back then was what it is today in domestic first class.

  • http://twitter.com/Grrrowler Todd

    I had something similar happen to me years ago in London. My checked bag was too heavy and I would have had to pay a huge fee. So, at the check-in counter I opened the checked bag, took out a few heavy things I was carrying, and put them into my carry-on bag. Everything was fine. Same total weight, but the fact that it wasn’t checked weight seemed to be all that mattered.

  • http://twitter.com/Grrrowler Todd

    The more a plane weighs the more fuel it takes to move it each mile it flies so there has to be some way to discourage people from putting luggage on a plane that requires a forklift to get onto the check-in scale. That said, I understand charging for grossly overweight bags, but the limit is WAY too low and is simply used as a way to get more money out of people. The airlines know that people can’t travel without taking at least some luggage with them so they set the weight limits low enough that people will end up paying for checking even a reasonable amount. If weight were the only concern, they’d also be weighing carry-on bags.

    The key point for me in Chris’ post is that the low-cost airlines in Europe charge for services like checked bags but their fares are much lower to start with. Airlines in the U.S. want to be seen as “full service” carriers, and have the high fares to go along with that, but then offer the customer service and the associated fees for basic services as if they’re discount carriers.

  • perljammer

    Depending upon the airplane, and assuming an average passenger weight of 160 lbs, total passenger weight on a commercial airliner can make up from 10 to 25 percent of the total gross takeoff weight. The percentage would be affected linearly with average passenger weight.

    Personally, I’d rather they forced people with eye-watering body odors (or overpowering aftershave/perfume) to buy out all the seats around them. Or not let them aboard in the first place.

  • nicho

    Some places — and from what I’ve seen, you have to be immense for that to kick in — not just “overweight,” but immense.

  • nicho

    Of course, it would be easier and more efficient to base the price of fast food on the weight of the purchaser. You get on a scale to order your triple cheeseburger with chili fries and a 52-oz. coke. The scale figures out the price based on your weight and the number of calories.

  • Indigo

    Charging extremely obese people for two seats is already in place, at least on an occasional basis. Or did I dream that?

  • guest1

    I wish people would stop flying unless totally necessary, boycott the airlines for just 1 year that might stop the TSA

  • nicho

    I was flying international last year. A woman in front of me had two bags. One was 10 pounds over and the other was under. So they made her repack the bags right there at the counter to get them both under the allotted weight. That just didn’t seem to make any difference at all.

  • nicho

    I remember years ago when I was flying in a puddle jumper for the first time. When I checked in, the desk agent all of a sudden asked “How much do you weigh?” Being overweight at the time, I lied. Then, as I sat there waiting for the flight to begin, I began thinking, “Oh shit, we’re going to crash and it’s going to be all my fault.”

  • nicho

    But they do allow you to pay for more luggage. Follow the money. Follow the money.

  • http://AMERICAblog.com/ John Aravosis

    But why do they then get so anal about luggage? And they’ve limited the luggage a LOT – remember when you used to be able to have 2 bags of 50 pounds domestic, and 2 of 75 intl? No more.

  • Drew2u

    I thought the actual weight of passengers was, while not neglegible, didn’t contribute a large part to the weight of a plane?

  • cole3244

    thats one way to get a leaner society presuming anyone can still afford to fly.

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