Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Buy it by the pound. (Samoa Air weighs in.)

Man years – and many pounds – ago, when I was less reluctant to reveal my weight to anyone other my primary care physician, I had occasional occasion to fly into Westchester Airport.  I can’t remember the airline that I flew, but I do recall that the plane was some type of Fokker that resembled nothing so much as a refrigerator. I know little about aerodynamics, but what I did know led me to be amazed that these planes were capable of becoming airborne.

Some of what it took was adjusting the seating plan.

When you checked in to get your seat assignment, the clerk would ask you what you weighed – or size you up. You were then assigned a seat so that the plane was balanced.

While I was doing regular business travel, I was also on a flight – still on the ground – when they announced that, unless the plane was able to shed a few LB’s – I think the magic number was 1,800 – the headwinds were such that we wouldn’t make it to Dallas without a refueling stop. I can’t remember what the incentive was, but they got a few folks to exit, and we made it to Big D without making a stop in Charlotte. (I do remember at the time being surprised that the level of tolerance was fine enough that as little as 1,800 pounds made a difference in our ability to get from Point A to Point D.)

Fast forward a few years – and a few pounds – and my husband and I were in Galway. We decided to take a day trip to the island of Inishmore and, rather than take the floating vomitorium (which we had experienced on an earlier trip), we thought we’d take flight. The plane was almost literally a puddle jumper. From Connemara International Airport in Rossaveal, you could see Inishmore.

Anyway, we made our reservations in Galway City, and the person in the tourist office told us that, when we got to the airport, we would be weighed. Since I knew quite well that I would not be found wanting, I laughed and told the clerk that it wouldn’t be possible for me to lose ten pounds by the next morning.

“Sure, the scale is all very discreet,” she charmingly assured me.

If you are familiar with the concept of the Irish whisper, you will have some idea what the Irish notion of “discreet” is.

Sure and didn’t the Rossaveal scale have a screen the size of Big Ben’s clock face? And wasn’t it there smack dab in the waiting room, facing the row of chairs where the passengers awaited the boarding call?


For some reason, perhaps because the pilot was able to size us up, perhaps because there were only three passengers: me, Jim, and a woman from Milwaukee named Sheila, they ended up not weighing us for the 10 minute flight.

Given my weighty history of flight, I was interested to read that Samoa Air is going to start charging by the pound.

Customers flying Samoan upstart carrier Samoa Air Ltd. on short international hops to neighboring American Samoa are set to pay US$0.92 per kilogram, or $0.42 a pound, for each flight. (Source: WSJ Online.)

This could prove embarrassing on your expense account, when your colleague put in for $50 for her ticket, and you were looking for reimbursement for, well, more.

But on these small planes, it seems to make absolute sense.

This is especially the case in Samoa, where more than half of all adults are obese, making passenger weight no small concern for an airline with a fleet of planes that have three to ten seats a piece.

That means a significantly overweight passenger could drastically reduce a plane's capacity, which could threaten revenue.

The airline notes that this will help ensure passenger comfort. I’m guessing it will also help ensure passenger safety – hard to image ten majorly girth-ful passengers trying to simultaneously deplane during an emergency.

Passengers booking online with Samoa Air are asked to provide their approximate weight and that of their luggage before being given an estimated fare.

Which is, of course, necessary if you want to have a coherent reservation system.

However, passengers tempted to lie about their weight are warned on the website that they will be weighed ahead of boarding, which is standard practice for passengers boarding very small propeller planes.

Other airlines may not be so tempted to follow suit, “because of discrimination concerns.”

Instead, US carriers make those who don’t fit in a regular coach seat to pay for an extra seat if the flight is full.

I’m not quite sure how this works.

If the flight is full, and a double-wide passenger shows up, where does the extra seat materialize from?

In addition to discrimination concerns, another obstacle in the way of pay-by-the-pound airline pricing for anything other than baggage, is the hassle factor. Having to weigh everyone on a 747 pre-boarding would be a complete drag. Of course, with the sensors available nowadays, it could probably be accomplished while people shuffled along in line. Or with vision technology that could estimate your weight.

Still, I can’t see it happening just quite yet on mainstream airlines.

Nonetheless, it is no fun when you’re seated next to an oversized passenger whose body mass is encroaching on your space, especially given how puny some airline seats have become. It’s also no fun when you’re monkey-in-the-middle, and the arithmetic-challenged travelers on either side of you don’t realize that you are entitled to 2/3’s – not one-half – of each of those armrests that abut your arms.

At least this is the math that works on a three-across. On a five-across, things get trickier. Passengers One and Five get their full solo armrest, plus .2 of the shared armrest. Passengers Two and Four get .8 of the armrest shared with Passenger One or Five, and .4 of the armrest shared with Passenger Three, who is entitled to .6 of each armrest.

Think of how difficult it is to explain this to passengers, let alone confound them with the concept of weight-adjusting – and weight-pricing – everyone on the plane?

But if the day comes for the Big Weigh-In for the Sky, I really do want enough warning to shed that pesky ten pounds of overage.

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