Airline’s Pay by the Pound Policy is a Problem

facepalmSeveral readers let me know that Samoa Air has become the first airline to price tickets entirely by weight. According to NBC News “Depending on the flight, each kilogram (2.2 pounds) costs 93 cents to $1.06.”  The weight includes the passenger and their luggage.

I looked up the official policy and it says:

So how does ‘Pay-by-weight’ work?

Well, its simple really:

Step 1. Select ‘Make a Booking’, and choose your flight

Step 2. Enter your details, including your estimated weight(s) of passengers and baggage

Step 3. Your airfare is then calculated using your weight.

Step 4. You travel happy, knowing full well that you are only paying for exactly what you weigh… nothing more.

Still unsure? Read on…

Booking a flight with us is as easy as inputting your approximate weight into our online booking engine (don’t worry, we will weigh you again at the airport) – you then can prepay your ‘guesstimate’, guaranteeing you that much weight is allocated to you for that flight. Take as many or as few bags as you wish – and avoid the exorbitant excess baggage fee’s [sic]! With Samoa Air, you are the master of how much (or little!) you air ticket will cost.

I’m so glad they said that, I was totally worried that they weren’t going to weigh me again at the airport.  Holy crap.  This is such a bad idea that many people online thought it was an April Fool’s joke.  It is not. In fact, it has been touted as “the only fair way to price tickets.”  I disagree with that, and think it’s a bad idea on many other levels.

First of all, the idea that “You are the master of how much” your ticket costs is ridiculous and not just because dieting is shown to fail long-term for almost everyone.  This also penalizes people monetarily for being tall, or for being more genetically likely to put on muscle, for weight training, for being on life-saving medications that cause weight gain, for having health conditions that cause weight gain.  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

First of all, I think it would be great if the airlines would clarify the problem they are solving.  As Deb Burgard once pointed out to me, the airlines try to have it both ways: When they bump us from flights because they’ve sold more seats than they have, they tell us that they didn’t sell us a specific seat, they are only selling transportation from one place to another.  When we take up more than one seat, they tell us that they aren’t selling transportation from one place to another, they are selling us a specific seat. That’s mighty convenient. but it leaves me with some questions.

I’ve seen the CEO of Samoa air quoted as saying that this is about charging heavier people more because they require more fuel.  Let’s examine that situation.  Forbes writer Emily Stewart’s research found that it takes about a gallon of jet fuel to fly 100 pounds on a domestic flight.  The industry average is $3.05 per gallon.  So I cost $6.10 more to fly than a 100 pound person, but my ticket costs up to $96 more.  That’s quite the mark-up.

Also, the most common complaint I hear is that fat people should pay more because we take up more space. Instead of blaming the airlines for shoving more seats on smaller planes,  anonymous people take to the internet to wring their collective virtual hands at the thought of having to touch a fat person – omg the horror, THE HORROR! For now I’ll ignore the fact that I’ve only ever seen it suggested that fat people pay more –  not people whose wide shoulders or long legs cause them to encroach on other passengers.  I looked all over Samoa Air’s website and I could not find anywhere that this is addressed.  There is nothing explaining what I would get for paying 3 times as much as a 100 pound passenger.  Do I get three seats?  Am I paying 15 times more than a 20 pound child but getting the same amount of space that they do? If I pay three times as much as the person next to me (my six bucks in extra fuel plus an 89.90 markup) and I’m still crammed into a tiny seat and they are still bitching about sitting next to a fat person, I’m not going to be a happy camper.

Even if I get three seats, there are other problems with this.  First of all, Samoa Air is a tiny airline so maybe they have time to weigh everyone at the airport and adjust their fees, but can you imagine the kind of time this is going to add to major airlines?  I travel all the time and I routinely get stuck behind people who haven’t sussed out that keys are made of metal, and so have to go through the x-ray twice, how early am I going to have to get to the airport to deal with this bullshit?

Also, I often book trips months in advance and, while I’m an organized person, I don’t typically pack my bags months in advance and so don’t have a precise weight for them.  So let’s say that I want to be a good guy so I overestimate.  According to their website “In the event that a pre-estimated weight defined by the customer is greater then what travels on the day, it is at the sole descretion [sic] of Samoa Air as to whether a refund for the weight difference may be offered.”

Ok, so if I don’t want to take the chance at losing money because I am not a luggage psychic, I underestimate. Then maybe I don’t get on the plane – again according to their website “Pre-purchased weight is given priority over weight that is purchased at a later date (for example: Online, prior to day of travel vs. at the airport on the day of travel).”

Ok, so if I overestimate I might lose my money.  If I underestimate then I might not be able to get on the flight. I’m sure this system wasn’t created to get people to overestimate and give the airline more money.

What happens when someone has underestimated by more than the money they have available to pay?  Does the airline lose the entire fare? Do they keep the money but not allow the flyer onboard? What happens when someone overpaid and wants their money back?

Yeah, this definitely won’t cause a massive clusterfuck at check in.

What about people who need medical equipment?  Power wheelchairs can weight more than 400 pounds, do people who use those chairs have to pony up an extra two hundred bucks every time they fly?  Then there are people who are on medication that causes weight gain, and who have health conditions that cause weight gain? They are being asked to pay extra for what is clearly a medical condition.

What about people with eating disorders who are told not to weigh themselves because of how triggering it can be?

Many women retain water each month. Forget that ovulation calendar, we’ll have to track water retention so that we know how much to estimate for our airline ticket.

Doesn’t this set up a scenario where people may do unhealthy things to “make weight” for their airline ticket?

Also, of course I would never suspect them of anything shady but who is verifying that the scales are correct?  According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics from 2012, about 1.75 million passengers fly every day.  If the airlines add just 2 pounds per person at $0.50 per pound that’s more than a half billion dollars in extra profits every year.

Meanwhile, Chris Langston, Chief Executive Office of Samoa is trying to get credit for “raising awareness of weight” because we know that the job of the airlines is to make our health their business, and absolutely nobody is talking about weight.  No wait, that’s wrong – people cannot shut up about weight and the job of the airline is to fly my ass safely from one place to another. Sorry, no extra credit for you Chris.

Even if this isn’t thinly veiled fat bigotry it’s still a horrible idea for all of these reasons and more. (For more on this topic, I recommend this blog by Jay Solomon.)

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31 thoughts on “Airline’s Pay by the Pound Policy is a Problem

  1. I’m thinking for me that a flight on Somoa airlines will happen NEVER.

    I’ve only been weighed prior to helicopter sight seeing flights–as the information was purportedly used for weight and balance of the small craft. I am prior Air Force so THAT made sense for we were seated on the helicopters in a fashion that seemed to fit the stated purpose.

    This guy seems to be out to make profit for his airline and hey, touting the whole “we care about the obesity epidemic” line is fashionable.

    Ugh, when will the insanity end???

    1. Oh, and for the helicopter rides, they did seem to keep the weight information to themselves (people behind the counter at check in). The guy who situated us in our seats just had a peice of paper with a lay out of who would sit where, which he then passed to the pilot who used it to familiarize himself with our names. I remember the flights as being very pleasant.

      Our ticket prices were not affected by our various weights. At the time my party’s weights ranged from 90 to about 250 lbs. Not sure if it would have changed had any of us been larger.

  2. You didn’t mention pregnant ladies, but I imagine you could’ve gone on a lot longer with examples of this bad practice..!

    Another point: airlines are NOTORIOUSLY slow at providing refunds for anything. My dad is STILL waiting on a refund for two years ago when he had planned a flight from BWI out to Michigan, and my mom fell ill at the last minute.

    Yeah. I don’t think someone’s thought this through…

  3. Minor point: Samoa Air uses small propeller planes, not big jets. I’m not sure how that affects fuel cost/pound.

  4. A little digging found this quote:

    “By 15 months of age 23.3% of boys and 16.7% of girls in American Samoa are obese. In the general population, 93.5% of American Samoans are overweight or obese.”

    Read more:

    I thought that Samoan people were bulkier by nature?? How can you say there’s an obesity problem if EVERYONE is genetically heavier? Pull up a picture on Google Images and take a look at the Samoans.

    And yes, their planes are 3 to 9-seater planes.

    Dafuq did I just read?

    1. no kidding…. my recollection of Samoans I have met and seen tends to represent that the cultural norm is to be large. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve met anyone who is Samoan that wasn’t solid and ‘bulky’ (to use your descriptor. In fact, I used the think I might like to live there because the social norm was more likely to be accepting of my size.

    2. I live in New Zealand and we have a large Samoan population here (especially where I grew up) and yes, pretty much every Samoan I know is ‘large’ compared to European ‘norms’. They also tend to have large families and not too much money. I think Samoa Air is going to find they will either need to change their policy or alienate most of their customer base.

      1. This is EXACTLY what I was thinking about the entire time I was reading! What a terrible policy to have for a genetically larger group of people. Disgusting and almost racist for profit.

        1. I’m not aware of any proof of genetic link to their size. However, since the Second World War when the islands were important staging posts for the US in the Pacific, lots of processed American foods were introduced, mostly high in fat or sugar. In turn, as these foods became popular, the native recipes were superseded. Today, Spam is massively popular there and coconut cream is widely used in recipes.

          Coupled with a cultural preference for a well fed look as attractive for both sexes and often being in the lower socio-economic groups (as Tanz33 mentioned), this would be an extremely simplified reason for their size.

          Googling for old pictures, Samoans in the pre-war era seem to look perfectly normal. Not underfed nor overweight except for the odd elderly woman which is also seen in old European photos at the same time.

          However, the islanders don’t have much choice of healthier foods. Fresh, local meat is hard to find and the major vegetables are root based so there are strong environmental factors in their situation which takes any lifestyle choices out of their hands.

  5. A couple of things. They fly really small planes and already weigh the passengers because they need to distribute them to balance the aircraft. Those planes run avgas not jetA which is a little more expensive- in the US the most expensive you would pay is over $12/gallon averaging about $6. I don’t think avgas gets any cheaper when you have to ship it to Samoa, so I would err on the high side for any calculations (I found one FBO in HI that was $7.50-probably a reasonable stand-in) Source – Also, they have been using this pricing model since November, the only reason it is news is because the FAA just approved a route to an American airport in, you guessed it, American Samoa.

  6. Weight distribution is relevant for balance when you’re on a really tiny plane, but is everyone going to sit in the same space as their baggage? Seems daft even when you consider that it’s only for little islandhoppers.

    1. I CAN’T fit in the lavatories of most planes. When I fly I have to deliberately dehydrate myself so that I don’t have to use the bathroom until we land.

      1. This is insane, huh? If our world is so overrun with fatties, why in the world would ANYTHING as necessary as a lavatory be made smaller?

      2. I cannot imagine having to deliberately dehydrate myself to fly. But that may be in my future…
        I’m so sorry. That sucks.

    2. I’m sure if someone complained the airline would respond as a confused child with big sad eyes, saying “But I thought you wanted more seats?”

  7. This made huge headlines, and I do believe it’s completely fucked, but I doubt it’s going to be a practice that, say, American or Southwest… well, maybe Southwest will bring up the possibility because they are often the douchiest of the douchy. The sad thing is I don’t believe they won’t ultimately do it because it’s unfair or because it penalizes the handicapped (imagine the public uproar when a ‘deserving’ person in a motorized wheelchair or bringing along their portable oxygen tank is suddenly charged double or triple what they would be sans equipment!), but because if every plane is held up long enough to weigh every passenger, argue the results of the scale, and collect extra monies, no plane will ever get anywhere again.

    If planes hold more than half a dozen people not only is this discriminatory and unnecessary, it’s also going to grind traffic to a screeching halt. But it’s a great stick to threaten us fatties with! Shut up and accept that you have to buy two or even three tickets spread all over the damn plane even though other people will sit in those seats since – due to our policy of overselling seats – the seats have been oversold. At least you don’t have to suffer the public humiliation of being weighed in front of everyone and having to cough up yet more money right then and there because you didn’t know when you booked the flight two months ago that the new anti-depressant you were put on would make you gain fifty pounds in a matter of weeks while everyone around you nods wisely and agrees that fat fatties are so stupid they don’t know they’re fat.

    In short, this got big headlines because most people won’t think it through the way we’re doing here, and it will help keep unruly fatties in line because they fear things could get yet worse. Fearmongering is always an effective tool of intimidation.

    My response to the ‘they’re selling you the room’ argument has always been that if I wasn’t trying to get from Point A to Point B quickly, I wouldn’t have any need for the room, ergo I would not be purchasing the ticket. Why the hell would I want to be squished into a seat that would have been cramped when I was a skinny, short seven-year-old now that I’m a very fat – but still short – adult?

  8. I couldn’t help but laugh at, “Sitting next to a fat person! The horror! THE HORROR!” Coming to a theater near you, Fat Person on a Plane! *Alfred Hitchock violins* *a woman screaming*

    1. Thanks for making my day, Ragen and Violet 🙂 Great hyperbole!! Too bad that there are people who actually react this way…fat bigots, unite! You have nothing to lose but your flesh-hating prejudice.

  9. If they had been honest, I wouldn’t be pissed.

    Alaskan bush pilots arrange passengers and luggage by weight, and divide passengers into different flights by weight, because they have to keep their little planes in trim in order to not crash into a mountain or a frozen river. But they don’t frame it in false language about rewards or being in control. It’s simply a fact that a pound is a pound is a pound whether it’s a person or their boots or their camera. No fat-shaming is implied.

    If Samoa Airlines had announced, “Due to the high priority of keeping our small aircraft in trim, we must charge by the pound and you may have to wait for the next flight,” then, fine, bush pilot, island pilot, same-same. But the way they announced what they were doing was just dumb. “In control?” Seriously? What, like I could just temporarily detach the bottom half of my body and FedEx it home, as if it were that extra sleeping bag I turned out not to need that badly?

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      I love the comment about the sleeping bag! I’ve flown on a lot of puddle jumpers in my time (I used to live in Montana) and I’ve definitely been weighed to get on a flight, so I know what you are saying. I would say that even if it’s not a fat shaming message, I don’t think that you have to charge people by the pound in order to properly distribute weight. You may have to know their weight, but you don’t have to use it as a basis for ticket prices. .



      1. True, come to think of it–I know of Bush carriers that will charge by the pound for the luggage, but none that price your ticket based on weight. Probably because word gets around.

        I wonder if Samoan Airlines has competition.

  10. So many excellent points – obviously they don’t have anyone with your critical thinking skills working for their airline or this never would have become policy.

  11. You all know what they really want, folks, and no one has said it yet.

    They want to weigh people in front of other people to shame them for being fat. Because we have become so twisted into thinking that FAT IS TO BLAME FOR EVERYTHING WRONG IN THE WORLD RIGHT NOW.

    I can remember sitting in classes where someone was having a bad day or failed or test or anything negative, and hearing them rant, then glare at me and say, “And to top it all off, I have to look at this fat c*nt. God, I’d wish you’d get run over, but I know that would only damage the fucking truck!”

    This is scapegoating, folks. If the plane can’t fly, it’s because of the fatty over there. Weigh her. She’ll still be fat, but now we’ll have proof and a justification for demonising her. Grab the pitchforks and the torches! Burn the fatty! Burn the witch!

    1. I’m with you– this is definitely scapegoating. Flying hasn’t been fun since 2001, and we all know why, and thanks to the groping hands of the TSA, everyone is angry when they have to fly nowadays. Angry because we have to take off our shoes, go through a nudey scanner or be publicly groped, can’t bring liquids, pay per bag, squeeze into very narrow seats (even for the “average” person) and don’t even get so much as a bag of peanuts for our troubles.

      So, clearly, instead of calling the airlines to task on their unfair and unfriendly practices that have made flying a miserable experience for everyone involved… let’s burn the fatties! It’s their fault you’re overcharged for airline tickets; it’s their fault coach is deliberately uncomfortable; it’s their fault the TSA hires felons to pat you down; it’s their fault you have to look at their fat body with your delicate, dainty eyes! I mean… seriously?

      I just want to shake some of these Internet anons by the shoulders. Listen, idiots of the interwebs, if you dislike sitting next to a fat person on a plane, IMAGINE HOW MUCH THEY HATE SITTING NEXT TO YOU, especially when the armrests are jabbing into their internal organs. And I’ve seen PLENTY of thin people be disrespectful asshats on a plane. Being fat has nothing to do with it. I mean, pretty much everyone loathes sitting next to a crying baby on a plane, but what are you going to do? Yell at the baby? Yell at the mother? Ban both mothers and babies from planes? Or are you going to shut up and suck it up because chances are that baby is having a worse day than you are? That’s what I thought.

  12. Hi, Ragen– I’m not so sure about this–I remember flying on a smallish Alaska Airlines plane. We were all weighed to see how much fuel the plane would need. (However, we were not charged by the pound.) The “bigger” Samoan Airlines planes have nine seats, the island-hopper has three. Samoans are famously large people. I can see this asshole thinking it would be a good idea to make some bigger bucks by charging people by the kilo, but he just hasn’t got it together. I mean, estimating luggage before pre-purchasing your ticket? How could that possibly be done? I did read a quote of his that said something like,”If a passenger needs more room he can have the whole first row.” He also said that the weight-fares would enable a thin 13-year-old to fly at the child’s rate, not the customary adult rate. As I said, he doesn’t have it together. Betsy

  13. I’m really glad you wrote this post, because a friend of mine mentioned hearing about the pay-by-weight airline today and I’m pretty sure she was going to say she thought it was – well, if not good, at least an interesting idea. I managed to cut her off and point out how disgusting and discriminatory it is, using examples I recalled from reading this. By the time I was done, she was nearly as appalled as I was.

    Nearly. She did say “But what if you went to the airport and found out the pricing was in your favor?” Well, I said. For one, it wouldn’t be, because I’m pretty fat. And for two, I don’t think I should benefit from something that harms other people.

  14. If airlines decide to charge by the pound, then I want a seat that fits my DEATHFATZ ass. After all, they wouldn’t try to squeeze 400 lbs of luggage into a space that only holds 150 lbs of luggage, so why do they think it’s acceptable to squeeze a 400 lb person into a space that barely fits a 150 lb person?

  15. Not to mention that they practically said that people=cargo. Let’s just hire a cargo plane and take their business away!

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