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Heavier passengers on planes mean new safety limits for airlines (wsj.com)
40 points by JumpCrisscross 11 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 107 comments

I do think the passenger should be weighed with their bags.

Ultimately the total mass of the person and their belongings is what is being lifted into the air. If there is a dignified way to weigh both, I think that would be fairest.

Some airlines have started doing exactly that.

I think it was a pacific island airline that did it first.

However, I'm the same height as aplummer. Whilst I probably should lose some weight, my lowest healthy weight is inevitably going to be more than any smaller person, and that was never in my control. My clothes are also bulkier and heavier.

While there are many small positive aspects to my size. Travel comfort is not one of them. It would be unreasonable to expect us to react positively to something that makes that worse.

Do you also expect a discount at the super market because you inherently have a higher daily caloric need than someone petite?

No, society already compensates for this with higher salaries for tall people.

But that’s discounted if they’re not attractive.

Not at all. That's a direct cost, and one I can choose how to control.

One consequence of using combined weight (passenger + luggage) is people will trim their luggage and also long term instill better eating habits in people. Ultimately putting pressure on processed foods which is what hurts most people.

"also long term instill better eating habits in people." if people won't change their diet because they barely fit in their car any more I don't think they will do it for slightly reduced plane fair

People will put up with physical discomfort over having to pay more (eg. economy seats).

If one combined weight is 220lb/100kg vs another combined weight of 320/145. That’s quite a difference in fuel requirements to move mass from one place to another. I don’t see why not discounting it proportionally to increased cost + opportunity cost. It’s not a penalty if it’s just proportional to actual cost.

They already discount children for theoretically weighing less than adults.

Demeaning behavior towards overweight people helps no one. Want to actually help instead? Try being their trainer or something.

How is weighing people and their luggage demeaning?

It’s not. The person I responded to was.

If you do that you'll find out airlines will ask your weight when booking, and politely tell you the flight is fully booked if you are on the slim side. A seat is a seat, better to charge as much as possible for it.

Heavier passengers cost more to transport. the increased revenue comes with increased cost.

I don’t see the connection to profit you’re making.

Back in 1987, I was scheduled for a Midway Air flight from Dubuque to Chicago. They weighed my luggage, then they asked me what I weighed. They assigned my seat based on the second answer.

As for dignified, I don't know what they'd have said if I'd picked out something way to small or big, say 120 or 250. It was mild weather though, and nobody was wearing clothes that would make it hard to guess weight fairly well.

So I should pay more for being 6’7”? Should your health insurance cost more since a number of chronic conditions are more likely to affect shorter people?

Yes, you should. You’re paying a business to move you and your stuff. It is not unreasonable for the business to charge based on the size and weight of what it is moving. Would it be unfair for a clothing company to charge based on the amount of material used to make a garment, since you would pay more than a smaller person? Or a restaurant to change based on the amount of food you eat, since you require more calories than a smaller person? You’re basically asking to be charged based on your subjective experience, not on the actual cost of the goods and services. Or more accurately, you’re asking for other people to pay for extra goods and services they aren’t using so you can have them for free.

> You’re basically asking to be charged based on your subjective experience, not on the actual cost of the goods and services. Or more accurately, you’re asking for other people to pay for extra goods and services they aren’t using so you can have them for free.

Neither of those points are true, and you didn't address my question as to whether you're happy to pay more for health insurance, since it costs the insurer more.

I didn’t address it initially because it is clearly a ridiculous strawman argument to attempt to equate legally required and life save medical insurance to airline travel. But it is really going to make you mad when you find out that health insurance already sets premiums based on height. “Height by itself may also dictate your insurance rates to a small degree. That's because above or below-average heights can be linked to an increase in the risk of certain health conditions.” [1]

>Neither of those points are true

Well, they are, so I‘ll lay it out. Aplummer and James are on a two-person plane flying to Whereverville. James and his luggage weigh 150 lbs, Aplummer and his luggage weigh 300 lbs. It takes 50 gallons of fuel to transport the total 450 lbs. At $2.50 per gallon, the total is $125. So ”the actual cost of the goods and services” is 16.6 gallons ($41.66) for James, and 33.3 gallons ($83.33) for Aplummer. But Aplummer doesn’t want to pay $83.33. He says “So I should pay more for being 6’7”?” and says him and James should both pay $62.50, leaving James “to pay for extra goods and services they aren’t using so [he] can have them for free”.

[1] https://quotewizard.com/health-insurance/health-insurance-ra...

> ridiculous strawman argument to attempt to equate legally required and life save medical insurance to airline travel


> Well, they are, so I‘ll lay it out.

That cost calculation is completely ridiculous without taking into account the capacity of the plane, overhead, seat class, disability status, ticket type, volume of luggage and a million other things. Which is why tickets are broken down to "ordinary adult" and "ordinary child".

Yes because you cost more and flying is not an entitlement we guarantee everyone access to.

This attitude simply makes charging/not charging based on height or weight a factor on which airlines can compete for passengers.

Should someone heavier (including being heavier due to being taller) pay more in gas/electricity for their car? We have been doing it all along...

Ideally corporations should charge depending on the condition, and on top of that pro-social government should determine which charges are discrimination and which are not, and then compensate discriminating charge difference from the budget. This makes the system transparent and it prevents real incurred costs spilling into unintended areas. E.g. plane won't fly if it is loaded with fuel amount assuming all passengers are slender. Extra fuel is loaded and burned, but currently costs are spread out to other services of the airline. Instead they should be visible and managed specifically I think.

at 6'3" I find myself at the limit of what a standard bilge class airline seat has room for. I'd imagine that at 6'7" you really need that business class or a bulkhead or exit row. So don't you already pay more?

Should a petite passenger have pay more because they commonly go on flights with heavier passengers?

Someone has to pay. There’s no free lunch.

Why make the lighter people pay for the heavier people?

Because people generally don't like being nickel and dimed. Why should someone with 20 pounds of luggage pay the same amount as someone with 50 pounds of luggage? Why not charge per pound for the luggage? And the luggage is even weighed, whereas scales would need to be added to weigh passengers. And then let's talk about carry on bags, why are those free and why aren't they weighed? There are huge differences in carry on bag weight between passengers.

Yet airlines don't charge per pound, they have cut offs which are pretty generous (e.g I've never been charged for extra weight on checkin luggage) and they don't even bother weighing carry on bags. Because as much as airlines will nickle and dime you, there are limits to all the little surcharges that people are willing to pay and to the complexity/inconvenience of the checkin process.

But when it gets to bodyweight you have even more hurdles. Someone is in a wheelchair, should that be weighed? Well, no they have a disability. So if an obese passenger claims it's a medical condition, they will likely complain about discrimination. Yet carry on bags and checkin luggage can be weighed right now with little complaints about violating ADA. But airlines aren't willing to do even that.

The position of the weight in the aeroplane is important. A poorly balanced plane can have control difficulties. So this would only really work with carry-on baggage. Of course you could weigh the bags again separately later and work it out.

I have been on scheduled flights where the flight attendants have had us switch seats to balance the plane.

These have all been quite small regional airline flights (e.g. 1-2 layout)

This has happened to me twice recently with United and JetBlue, on regular-sized planes. I think I recall a recent FAA advisory for the airlines to start doing that.

Then company profits should also be directly controlled so that they could not have profits that are excessive to expenses.

This topic will inevitably lead to discussions of why people get overweight and/or why the fail to lose weight when they try to stop being overweight.

This is a more complicated issue that most people realize. Last year "Nova" had a really good episode caller "The Truth About Fat". It's currently available for free viewing on the PBS site [1]. It is quite interesting and informative.

[1] https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/video/the-truth-about-fat/

It says "We're sorry, but this video is not available". Ain't that the truth.

No. The truth is they eat too much sugar. Finding food without sugar (why the hell do i need sugar in peas ?) is tricky to say the least.

Unprocessed food without (much) sugar is all over the place, even peas. It's just inconvenient.

No simple answers!

All these kinds of simplications - too much sugar, too much cards, too much fat, not enough walking, too many video games, etc. - never turn out to be the answer for a broad part of the population. This cannot be turned into a sound bite.

Paying airfare per seat and per pound (body and luggage) could lead to some unexpected health benefits. Ticket price could be structured as a fixed part per seat and variable price per difference of total mass from a baseline, e.g. you will get discount if you and your luggage weighs less than 175 lbs. (more on long distance flights). Now go ahead and down vote me.

I won't downvote you but I will disagree: airlines already seek to optimize revenue per passenger. And to that end their best benefits and service are targeted towards high profit business and first class customers. For those there will be no paying by the pound because the miniscule increase in profit cannot be reconciled against the risk of losing their business and will most likely be waived anyway as a status benefit.

However for the no status / low status passengers although in my opinion there's a baseline revenue target per seat airlines would like to hit and therefore we probably won't see discounts for skinny customers or children, penalizing overweight passengers for an added revenue stream seems entirely realistic. Airlines already hit no status/low status customers with a long lost of contrived fees for everything from picking your seat, slightly better legroom, boarding position and luggage count. Piling on another fee would be profitable and no doubt heartily embraced if it can be disguised as a safety concern.

So... Airlines would be interested in heavier people because they pay the most, isn't? And people in low economic brackets would try to lose as much weight as possible, probably getting below healthy conditions just so they can travel cheaper. Healthy indeed...

> Airlines would be interested in heavier people because they pay the most, isn't?

No, because other factors bring in orders of magnitude more money, which is why airlines cater to business travelers that buy expensive tickets last minute, not leisure travelers, that buy tickets months in advance. Weight (and the cost of fuel to move it) is only one of many factors that contribute to the total cost of airline tickets.

> And people in low economic brackets would try to lose as much weight as possible, probably getting below healthy conditions just so they can travel cheaper.

If we take baggage fees as in indicator of cost, we could assume 50 lbs will cost or save you about $30. And people are going to not only lose weight, but lose so much to be unhealthy to save…60 bucks round trip on a once yearly vacation? If giving people $60 a year to lose weight is real, we have just discovered a way to save billions on healthcare.

Airlines would probably still be interested in more people on the plane, as that allows for more incidental charges like carry-on bags, checked bags, overweight bags, in-flight snacks, drinks, etc.

The airplanes should be able to tell how much they weigh when they are on their wheels.

You could try to read the pressure in the oleos, but it's likely to be inaccurate. At least if there is a breeze, those wings are still doing their thing...

I don’t disagree that airlines should -be allowed- to do charge more. I sort of don’t think they should do it. But in the US anyway, hey that’s the free market…if they try it and the market doesn’t like it then they’ll stop (bc people will fly other airlines…unless there’s collusion between the big airlines but that wouldn’t ever happen in America right…)

But I also think it should be a two way street. If we have a strong tail wind we should get a little bonus. If passengers fail to look into weather forecasts and there’s a strong head wind well tough we get charged extra. That kind of thing.

Strangely prescient... https://youtu.be/zf2QE3ZEmDM?t=80

Free market 101: charge passengers based on weight?

Some airlines make people who can't fit into a single seat buy two tickets.

Which airlines? Any in the US?

Pretty sure all of them do. Here is United's policy: https://www.united.com/ual/en/us/fly/travel/special-needs/ex...

Interesting how nowhere in there it mentions the words overweight or fat.

It’s nothing to do with being overweight... it’s about whether your person impinges upon the seat real estate of the paying customer sitting next to you. If you were as dense as a bowling ball but the size of Ruth Bader Ginsburg they would certainly need to burn more fuel for you but that’s not what the upcharge is for.

You create a fictional world to make your narrative fit. People generally have the same density. It's odd to assume some people could be as dense as a balloon and some as a bowling ball, all the while ignoring that weight is by and large the determining factor when it comes to impinging upon the seat real estate of those sitting next to you.

I’m not saying that the two aren’t closely correlated... I’m saying that the policy isn’t there to punish fat people, it’s to protect the experience of the other people on the plane. A person shouldn’t pay full price for a ticket and then lose some of their already minimal real estate to another passenger.

people most certainly don't have the same density. If your body fat is <10% you will not easily float in water, whereas if you're 30%+ you're basically an inner tube. However that is beside OP's point. Someone like Lebron James is not overweight but it's entirely possible he would need to buy two tickets.

Because not all large people are overweight or fat.

That would be a rather rude way of putting things; generally you want to avoid insulting your customers.

But you want to use any aspect of them to rip them off. Hello Sir, unfortunately we do have small seats so you will have to book also another free seat in the back of the plane and the seat next to it and because you need to seat down also the 2 seats in front of you. Thank for flying XXX Airlanes.

Anyone could choose to pay to fly in big roomy seats. It’s called business and first class. People do not want to do that, which is why people not only keep buying tickets in economy, but buy tickets on budget airlines that are even more cramped, less comfortable, and have less amenities. You are renting space on the plane for the duration of your trip. If you want more space, you are free to purchase it.

If you deliberately chose to purchase a seat you know does not fit your needs, then attempt to steal space from the person next to you, then you are the bad guy. Not the airline. If you think you deserve to be gifted free additional space you did not pay for, then you are the bad guy.

Some crazy airline made Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy, etc.) buy two seats. He was hopping mad, and I don't blame him.

He said he was he not spilling over into the next seat.

(If airlines want to embarrass people, they need to do it in a tactful way. Like before buying the ticket. For instance, if your waist is over--whatever 50 inches, you need to buy two, but not on the plane in front of everyone. Airline have to go back catering to their custmers. Taking a flight seems just awful these days.)

Story is here: https://www.cnn.com/2010/SHOWBIZ/Movies/02/15/kevin.smith.so...

Now, I don't know the whole story of how the communication with Smith went down, but I 100% agree with the policy: If you can't lower the arm rest, you need to buy another seat.

Also, your suggestion "Like before buying the ticket" doesn't make sense. How is the airline to know someone is large enough to buy require 2 seats before they board?

I remember when this story came out, and there was plenty of backlash against Smith for going on his tirade, and some of it from other overweight people basically along the lines of "I know I'm overweight, and I know I have to deal with it by buying a second seat".

There's no way to verify that prior to them being there in person. If you did it at ordering time people would just lie.

Likewise, luggage is weighed at the airport, rather than what someone claims the weight is.

How much of the cost of a flight is fuel? What percentage of the mass being moved is passengers and their luggage be freight and the plane and fuel itself?

> How much of the cost of a flight is fuel?

Better question: what fraction of airline's margins could one explain with the variation of passengers' weights? Airlines' pre-tax margins are low [1]. Almost any factor, meaningless or meaningful, will look tiny relative to revenues or costs.

[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/225856/ebit-margin-of-co...

>How much of the cost of a flight is fuel?

In terms of flight operating costs (FOC) per hour, about 16-36% according to the numbers for a 737-500 across for Continental/United/Southwest a few years ago.

It's very dependent on utilization. Fixed ownership (i.e. depreciation/leasing) costs start to dominate at low utilization rates.

Boeing 737‐500 FOC per block hour (~2017):

              Crew Fuel      Maint. Ownership Hrs/day
  Continental $510 $430(19%) $ 651  $698      3.9
  United      $927 $487(16%) $1048  $510      4.3
  Southwest   $388 $537(36%) $ 251  $350      8.2

When I worked on the 757, it was 45%. The whole justification for the 757 was lower fuel burn due to a new wing design and new engines.

The same for the 737MAX.

Mid sized airliner roughly 90,000 lbs for the plane and equipment and 160 to 170,000 or so maximum take off weight depending on the variant. So a bit over half the weight is the plane itself the rest is fuel + people/freight.

A 777-300 has a maximum take off weight of 660,000 lbs of which 312,000lbs can be fuel.

So an extra 100 lbs on every passenger is a drop in the bucket!


100 lbs * 500 passengers is 50k pounds or about 10% of the max takeoff weight quoted there. Those numbers seem likely to be over-estimates, but that seems not inconsequential?

Edit: the plane holds 328-550 depending on seat configuration per the above link. I went with the upper end of that range per consideration of the “safety considerations” indicating it is the upper end of that range that is being reconsidered.

A 777-300 holds 388 passengers, so 39,000 lbs extra would be significant.

Is the average American 100 lbs heavier than the average person from the rest of the world? Probably nowhere near that.

22 kg (48.6 lbs) according to [1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_body_weight

A 777 is not a mide sized airliner, wide body aircraft for long haul have very different calculations because their flight can easily be over 12 hours long.

The problem case for weight are the regional jets (E190 etc) and to a lesser degree the 737/A320 family. Those tend to be weight limited enough that you need to offload passengers or baggage if it's too warm outside.

fwiw, the old rule of thumb when I was trained is "it cost you one pound of fuel for every three that you carry", where 'cost' is in the form of increased burn (decreased efficiency).

Of course, fuel is no different than any other weight, so the same rule would apply to the revenue load (people, bags, freight)—for every three pounds it cost you one pound of fuel.

Incidentally, I've always felt ticketing should be pro-rata wrt weight. Well, where 'always' is defined as 'since I obtained my FAA dispatcher license.'


BMI seems irrelevant in this case. You're not charging people based on if they are at a healthy weight or not(1). Either you are charging extra because more weight = more fuel. In which case 250 lbs is 250 lbs and it doesn't matter if you're 5'2' or 6'10. Or you are charging extra because you are taking up two seats, in which case it again doesn't matter how tall or heavy you are, only how wide you are.

(1) Yes I know link between a 'normal' BMI and health is complicated.

This should reduce ticket costs for fit people, which may be an incentive for some to live a healthier lifestyle.

Not all weight is fat. If you are 1.90m tall man and naturally big, you can easily weight twice as much than a 1.55 woman even if you are fit. How are you going to account for natural weight vs being overweight. Even BMI is very crude.

Worse, the comment seems to be confusing under-eating with fit. Muscle is heavier/denser than fat and requires more calorie consumption to maintain.

I said some people not all could benefit from a healthier lifestyle which is caused by losing fat, how is this controversial?

How you measure that at the gate

As a person who has done weight cuts for weigh-ins, I imagine weighing in at the gate leads to hungry, dehydrated people who get weighed and then immediately eat and re-hydrate. I'm not sure plan bathrooms are suited to the consequences of that.

Some people may suffer by their own actions, but I think a larger number of people may just get into the habit of living a healthier lifestyle specially if they fly a lot to make this worthwhile. Sort of like making wearing seatbelts mandatory, it adds years to your life, while making many uncomfortable an extra bit every time they drive.

The weighing could be done at the end of the flight.

End of flight weigh ins incentivizes dehydration during the flight.

It's possible some people will actually get healthier. However, it's also much easier to lose 10lbs from dehydration and pooping than from losing fat (from my experience).

They will find a way. Especcialy if they can charge extra.

Give free haircuts before long haul flights?

I cannot imagine hair weighs enough to offset expenses of cutting it.

Free pre flight enema and sauna.

In-flight liposuction

Liposuction using low pressure outside the cabin.

Free laxatives might be more effective.

It's sort of scary how the set of circumstances in the USA surrounding the food supply are causing approximately an entire nation to be robbed of good health and years of lifespan.

"We have to recalculate weight on airplanes" is just a proxy, a code smell. There's an iceberg of catastrophe here.

It's more widespread than the USA. People have gotten noticeably heavier in the last ~50 years pretty much everywhere that isn't Asia or the middle latitudes of Africa [1].

(And actually, they have also gotten noticeably heavier in Asia and Africa, too, but because they started with much lower obesity rates, it just isn't as noticeable. For example in 1975 14% of Japanese were overweight, compared to 47% US. By 2013 that was 28% Japan, 72% US).

There's a nice interactive graph on the linked page around 2/3 or so down that lets you look at the growth over time for assorted countries.

This should be pretty alarming, because it indicates that whatever is leading to soaring obesity in the US quite possibly is not something specifically that we in the US are doing wrong in our eating or exercise choices and habits.

[1] https://ourworldindata.org/obesity

Well, it's definitely correlated with the time we've decided that "fat is bad, eat low fat for better health" that we've gone from obesity being a rare metabolic syndrome to a widespread epidemic. And the increased reliance on processed food, which is not only the very maligned ultra palatable junk food, but processed food in general.

Of course it's more complicated than that, studies are moving in that direction but it's going to be 50 more years since updated dietary guidelines become common (grandma's) knowledge.

There are some things like urban planning (for walkability/bikes) that I think adds to the problem in the US but isn’t such a problem elsewhere. It’s by no means unique to the US but it’s one thing that adds to it.

Well, entire generations were brainwashed not to eat good foods, and to substitute more harmful foods in their place. Remember the food pyramid? Many of my schoolmates are obese and well on their way to an early death due to diabetes, from being told to avoid fat and to eat plenty of cereals and grains.

Yea the food pyramid is pretty bad, its basically a how to guide on getting diabetes. Cereals and grains have the word glycemic loads while fats and meats are the healthiest things to combat insulin resistance and diabetes but the pyramid tells you to never eat them. If the pyramid was inverted (except for sweets) it would be healthier.

And Americans wonder why the rest of the world doesn’t want the acid bath chicken and hormone and steroid infused milk exports

Edit: exports

Yet neither of those are the problem. The problem is carbs and lack of exercise.

American bread is basically cake. We serve fries with everything. Ketchup, which is basically red sugar paste, is a go-to condiment. People drink fruit juice “to be healthy”, etc etc.

Even in big tech companies, nearly all of the snacks are carb dense potato chips, sugar glazed nuts, candy, instant noodles, and more.

Everyone eats like they work 10 hours of calorie-intensive labor while barely moving at all. It would be a wonderful if the only thing Americans ate was chicken and steroid milk exports.

The Dutch serve fries with everything. We use ketchup and sugar like you do. We eat and drink fruits like you do as well. Also, we deep fry like everything. Seriously, Google search for Dutch fast food. It’s literally all deep fried from cheese to noodles to meats.

The difference is your portion sizes are gigantic compared to ours. If you go to a McDonald’s in Holland and buy a meal, our fries are what you’d call small size, and our cola are what you’d call child’s size. At restaurants we don’t have unlimited refill of cola like you do, we pay for each bottle so we don’t typically drink an entire days worth of kcal in cola with each meal like you do. Our breakfast is smaller and cold, not big lavish feasts with cooked food. What you call breakfast we’d probably call lunch, and what we call breakfast you’d probably call a snack.

We also collectively exercise more than you do just by living. It’s not a secret that bicycling around is a huge thing and the primary transport we think of when we want to go somewhere unless we have a reason not to.

I’m sure the types of food you have are a big contributor, but at the end of the day you’re the ones stuffing all of that into your mouths instead of properly portioning out sizes.

And lockdowns made that worse. Would be curious to see the average weight gain over 2020

I lost (a small amount of) weight while working from home, because I didn't have access to the company-supplied stuff in the break room...

Honestly, even those with high intensity jobs often can’t burn the excess calories from the typical diet. How many overweight construction workers have you seen?

I don't think either of those are in any way contributing to the problem I am describing.

Portion sizes, excessive fat and simple sugars, loading everything (even savory foods) with huge amounts of federally-subsidized cheap corn syrup, all sorts of things. It's not as simple as (or related to) livestock practices.

There are no more normal size candy bars for sale in the gas station by my winter home; only "king size" which are approximately 2x the size of a normal candy bar. This is just one of a million little examples.

I've actually seen the opposite where I live. A lot of stores have moved to smaller candy bars than in the past. But i suspect that's to increase profits as they still cost the same.

Also they increased sugar content. They may be smaller but they are deadlier.

Maybe not, but the problem tarnishes the brand and erodes trust in claims that X is not a problem.

I strongly suspect that incredibly cheap lean protein (aka chlorinated / acid bath / steroid chicken) is net positive for American health by offsetting the low-quality processed carbs that would replace it.

I half expected you to say "Slime-Mold Protein", but you just had to say "chicken".

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