Airlines should charge passengers by weight, says economist

Reuters: "Bhatta put together three models for what he called 'pay as you weigh airline pricing.' The first would charge passengers according to how much they and their baggage weighed. It would set a rate for pounds (kg) per passenger so that someone weighing 130 pounds (59 kg) would pay half the fare of 260-pound (118-kg) person."


      1. I like to think that if you came in over at the gate they would cut bits off to bring you in line with your ticket price, and if you came in under they would force feed you peanuts.

          1. Out in the parking lot we’d see passengers sitting in their cars, wearing too many layers of sweats, hungry and spitting into jars, like wrestlers and boxers before a match.

      2. They already weigh your luggage when you check it. Might as well just charge for the total weight of person + stuff, since that’s what’s getting transported.

        1.  What’s dumb about is is an economist that can’t into simple math.

          So if we look at at 737.  Why because I used to fly on them a lot and I like them, they’re the F150 pickup truck of passenger air.

          Anyway a 737 weighs in at 72000 lbs, and carries 120 passengers.  So the weight of plane per passenger is 600lbs.  So a 120lbs lady plus 600 lbs is 720lbs of passenger plus airframe.  A 240lb fatso is 840 lbs, or 16% more weight to fly around.  So the differential isn’t very much. +/- 8% max.  More likely it’s less say +/- 4%

          The problem for the airline is the the average cattle load of 120 passengers is likely to weigh the same on average.  If you charged skinny people less, and fat people more, you’d still charge the same per flight, there is no advantage to this pricing scheme.

      3. Yes, after having an anal probe at the TSA booth, stepping on a scale is going to be *so* demeaning.

        I suppose what they’d do would be to ask your weight when you book online and at the kiosk, the thing would have a weight pad in front of it and if you varied more than 10% there would be a surcharge to get your boarding pass.

    1. They could charge a price based on national averages and adjust the bill at check-in. No problem. And the price should be based on passenger+luggage. This makes perfect economic sense, and is clearly the only important consideration.

      1. Not if a 130 lb person pays half what a 260 lb person pays it’s not, unless the 260 pound person gets twice as much SPACE ad the 130 lb person. It’s fair if you divide space on the plane up by what percentage of the total gross income of the flight each passenger paid, and if you paid half of what another person paid you get half as much space. And if they enforced it. If the 260 pound person pays twice as much and gets essentially the same space, there is nothing fair about it. Weight is NOT the only important consideration. Fuel is not the only cost.

        1. Under this new, smarter economic reality, you are paying only for transportation from one place to another. As the weight of you and your luggage increases, the cost to ship you there increases. You’re not paying for space aboard the aircraft, you’re paying to be lifted from one place and set down in another. I am 100% onboard with this new system and nothing else I hear will make me think otherwise. Air travel is merely a function, a practical need to be there and not here.

  1. It’s a little unfair. If you look at the luggage of a 6′ man versus a 4.5′ tall woman, you’ll see that small woman clothes are bloody tiny, 1 pair of big man jeans is the volume and weight of half of the small woman wardrobe.

        1. Yes and redundant outfits.  Petite female outfits may be 1/10th the cloth weight of fat-man-tarps, but she packs 12 of them for every t-shirt-jeans combo I pack.  Six coats, a dump truck load of shoes, Costco-super-size bucket of shampoo and conditioner and hair spray, hair dryer, backup hairdryer, LLAMAS and a Pekinese.  Then, the coup de grace, “Honey, can you take this out to the car for me, it’s too heavy.”

          AAAAARGH!  (& Don’t get me wrong. I love my wife.  She’s at the top of a very short list of best things that ever happened to me.)

          1.  NOT ALL WOMEN.

            In our 3-generation family, we never have to check luggage, even for 2- and 3-week trips.  That includes teenage girls and adult women.

            If you’re married to a stereotype, what does that make you?

      1. She’s probably carrying all the shared items which you wouldn’t have thought to bring.

    1. Yep, I’m imagining a bunch of tired and frustrated flight attendants helping all of the passengers reach their luggage in the overhead compartments.

      1. I’m sure that they’d have a rule that you can’t use it if you can’t reach it.

  2. I’m 6’6″, 300 pounds, so I’d obviously be paying more for tickets under this regime.  I’ll accept this new arrangement under one condition: I not only get the weight I pay for, but the *volume* as well.  Don’t charge me double ’cause I’m huge, and then try to pack me into a seat designed for waifish twelve-year-olds.  That would make me angry.

  3. Bhatta isn’t too good at math if he doesn’t recognize that his 2nd and 3rd models are mathematically identical versions of y = mx + b
    But it’s silly to not consider the volume of passengers as the first model fails to do. You’re not going to get two 100 lb passengers to sit in one seat, even if you charge a 200 lb passenger the same price for that seat.
    Update: the summary article misrepresented things a bit, so my criticism isn’t on mark.  Here’s the full paper:

    1. Thanks for the link.

      But… and please understand that I only have the deepest scorn for typography snobs normally… but hot damn, is that some truly awful kerning!

      Seriously, reading this paper is like glass shards in my eyes!

    1. Doesn’t fit the economy; if you weigh more, you consume more fuel That’s literally the only thing that matters. Comfort, customer service and satisfaction are absolutely irrelevant.

    2. Once again, the mercurial definition of “fair” fails us.  Fair is a value judgement.

      I believe the point of the proposal (other than obvious trolling) is that heavy people cost the airlines more, so airfare should be reflective of that.  So BMI and “by choice” don’t really enter in to it. 

    3. BMI?  How is that “fair”?  A plane lifting 215 pounds of passenger is lifting 215 pounds of passenger.  Is the goal here to punish “fatties”?

      1.  Pretty much. It would be a way for airlines to raise ticket prices without risking goodwill in the same way an “unjustified” price hike would. It won’t be difficult to rally support behind a policy which purports to reward slender people, or teach fat people some kind of moral lesson which will purportedly “help” them.

      2.  It’s less unfair than charging people for the weight of their skeletons which I think was Eelke Folmer’s point, but I tend to agree with you that the simplicity of losing weight is greatly exaggerated and that it’s not particularly fair either way.

        Then again air travel would probably not exist in its current form if it weren’t for ridiculous government subsidies and bailouts and that isn’t exactly fair.  And it’s not exactly fair that I can afford to pay for plane tickets and get three weeks of vacation every year in which to use those tickets when millions of people are going without enough food.  “Fair” is a fraught concept.

        1. “It’s less unfair than charging people for the weight of their skeletons”

          No it’s absolutely not less unfair.  Unless, again, your goal is just to make overweight people pay more.  If the goal here was to compensate the airlines for the true cost per passenger, then as long as they can reasonably fit in a seat, weight is weight.

          1. Rather than make my snarky comment that is probably unfair to weightier folks and will get me in trouble I’ll simply say that I don’t completely agree but also don’t strongly disagree.  They are comparably unfair.

        2. It’s less unfair than charging people for the weight of their skeletons

          Damn osteoporosis sufferers!  Always getting the good discounts.

    4. Yes, and I have a thyroid problem, so I’m not the weight I am by choice, either. And someone on chemo can swell up like a balloon or shrink to skin and bones. They aren’t their size by choice, either. Fair? What’s that?

  4. This makes little sense. The weight of people and luggage is less than 20% of the weight of the aircraft. A 747 carries about 500 people, and has a max takeoff weight of around 1 million pounds (landing weight of 600,000 pounds). Average that out, and that’s 1,600 pounds per person. A 50lb difference (fully laden suitcase, thin vs fat person) is about a 3% difference. For a $400 ticket, that’s $12 more. Hardly worth the hassle.

    1. On the other hand, if you’re using it as a stand-in for volume, it’s a reasonable representation of the fraction of the passenger space that they take up, which seems to be the major limiting factor.

      The only problem is that the passenger space, as it is, can’t be subdivided. Really screws up the economics enormously. You get a set size of seat, the size of the seats on the plane can’t be adjusted to accommodate varying passenger groups. The closest-to-right way to do this, at a guess, would be to have adjustable seats and charge by seat volume, just letting people pay more for a larger seat in a reasonable and graded manner. Currently you’ve got one to three grades, if I’m recalling how first class works correctly, that come with a bunch of additional crap beyond the size. If the airline really wanted to, it could also set a minimum seat volume for a given weight to ensure that people were not extending beyond their seat, but this still really depends on the ability to change the size of the seat to be sensible.

      1. I was on 2 flights yesterday, one in Economy and one in 1st Class.  Economy rows were 4 across and 1st Class was 3 across, with more legroom*.  It was actually cheaper for me to pay a $125 upgrade for 1st Class with free baggage than to pay the $150 tariff on my overweight bags.
        * and copious free booze.

        1. Huh, I had not considered the impact from the pretty recent addition of baggage fees on the relative price hike for first class, definitely an interesting point.

      2. On the other hand, if you’re using it as a stand-in for volume,

        You know those pornoscanners which can’t detect weapons, they make ideal volume measuring instruments.

      1. Not just possibly a scam, but a trolling action.  On the internet! 

        I know, I was shocked too. 

        Well I’m off to help this nice Nigerian fellow get some gold bars out of his country he was so wrongly imprisoned in.  And then, perhaps, a picture of a cat.

        1. I think I’m helping the same guy. I bet if we filled out the applications together, we could increase our profits!

    2. Pretty much this.  It’s like carpooling.  The extra gas to move those people is easily offset by the fact they are all chipping in on gas.  If a plane is only half full it doesn’t matter how much anyone weighs, it matters to the airline that the plane is half full (not half full of fat or thin people).

      If every plane was filled to +90% capacity then we could talk about weight and volume issues.

      1.  Have you flown much recently? I can’t think of the last time I was on a flight that wasn’t fully sold out.

        1. Yeah times have changed. In 1997 I was one of about ten passengers on an Air France 747 flying to Europe. But these days if the load factor on a flight is less then about 70% their aircraft has a “mechanical failure” and the passengers are put on the next available flight.

          1. Hm… long-haul flights (e.g. transatlantic/pacific) on big, predominantly internationally operating airlines aren’t cancelled unless *really* necessary, for one simple reason: if a plane isn’t where it should be/where you expect it to be it would cause total chaos and ripple effects throughout the system. They need that plane/the crew for the return flight and so on…

            About 4 years ago I was on an Air France 747 from Paris to New York and every single passenger in the “hump” (economy on that flight) had 3 seats available to them, which means at least one section of the plane was only 1/3 full.

            So yes, it still happens.

  5. I fly at least 10 times a month, usually more.  I’m 5’10” and weigh a buck fifty.  My luggage and tools weigh 100 lbs and the overage charges for my baggage are often $150 each way for a short flight.  All up, I’m paying $150 more than a 250 lb guy with a carryon.  So I’m kinda getting hosed in terms of weight if you’re relating price to mass.
    But I’m sympathetic toward bigger people.  They’re selling everyone a seat and if you fit in it, the price should be the same whether you weigh 98 or 298.

  6. And how many seats would be in the plane? Would they be able to support a giant group of very light people with no luggage (a family with many small children, school trips, etc.) with just as many seats as a group of very large football players? (person per a flight value… not sure if that exists, but it sounds good.)

  7. I once again advocate that airlines simply anesthetize all travelers, roll them up in blankets, and stack them.  You can’t please all the people all the time but you can certainly anesthetize them, roll them up in blankets, and stack them.

    1.  I would pay extra for the privilege. Sounds like a higher quality of comfort and customer service than most airlines provide nowadays.

      1. I’ll repeat my puzzlement as to why anyone would want to get high and be in an unconscious state with people you know you can’t trust.  Would we wake up to find something drawn on our faces?

      2. Every time I’m crammed into a significantly vertical seat on a long overnight flight, I look up at all that headroom and rally at the gods as to why they cant make plane seats more like capsule hotels, with the more able-climbers obliged to take the upstairs seats.

    2. Once you’re doing that, charging by weight actually starts to make sense, since we’re dealing in stacking algorithms instead of seats.  Plus it resolves several longstanding flight security issues.

      1. Yes, that first bit is where I got the idea.  It would resolve some security issues and create some exciting new ones.  It’s a fresh new idea with a lot of promise and as GlyphGryph points out would represent an immediate improvement in customer service and comfort.  Patent pending.

        1.  As much as I chortled over your plan, I’m one of those people who reacts funny to medication, so I’d likely be in the first class action suit against the airlines in your scenario.  Too bad, because otherwise your plan sounds like a winner to me.

    3. Thinking of how this instantly alleviates so many issues from crying babies to “this airline food sucks!” makes me wish this was a possibility.  I look forward to travel being like Fifth Element where the stewardess presses a button and BAM.

    4. Do we also need to discuss the possibility of mandatory catheters?

      In the catheter-free situation, I’m imagining things could get a little rough for the people at the bottom of the pile after a 12 hour flight.

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      2. It wouldn’t be too fun, either, if the guy above you is suffering from diarrhea. Perhaps diapers for all? Although for a 12 hours flight it would probably not be enough. Hmm… well, I guess the flight attendants will be doing diaper changes instead of rolling the lunch cart.

    5. Not too difficult to circumvent pesky little things like Constitutional Rights and such,  since the TSA is already at the airports.  Give ’em the tranquilizer guns and it’s gonna be a turkey shoot!

  8. There’s plenty more wrong with the airlines that should be addressed before we get into more complex pricing structures.

  9. In the 1970s, there used to be “Penny-a-Pound” flights at airports — basically a Cessna would take kids and their parents for a short (15 minute or so) flight around town. That was my first flight when I was around six years old.

  10. I am probably little bit above average weight (10-20 pounds), but wouldn’t mind this system. It would actually give me an incentive to lose some weight, to be honest.
    Up until few years ago they cancelled the policy of 2 bags for transoceanic flights, because it was too expensive. How is this any different? They simply take into the account average expected weight of a passenger (not average person’s weight), and then they treat everyone equally. This transfers the cost onto smaller/lighter passengers, so why should they pay for me.
    It would make sense to have people pay the average price when they buy tickets, and then either give them discount if they are below or charge extra if they are above the set weight. They do that anyway when you show up with extra luggage at the check-in counter.
    And I’m pretty sure that if one or two companies apply this system, the others will follow. Why? It’s because they will attract the people who weigh less and others will transport only heavier passengers. This will not be cost effective for them so they will have to follow.

  11. Why do we care what some random economist thinks we “should” do?  Conservative economists have basically set themselves up as a new priesthood, perhaps in the church of Ayn Rand, which confuses morality with the maximization of some naive utility function.

    Economists can’t have it both ways. If they want intellectual respect they should be telling us what *is*, not what should be, and test their theories and modify them if their predictions don’t match outcomes. (I’m talking to you, Austrian economists: by what you were saying five years ago we should now have serious hyperinflation because of the Fed’s quantitative easing program).

  12. “To the degree that passengers lose weight and therefore reduce fares, the savings that result are net benefits to the passengers,” 
    That kind of sums up the argument right there. As if the TSA isn’t bad enough, we would have airlines acting as weight-nannys ‘for our own good’. So many other problems need addressing before this one.

    *But* if they were really to take this one on, I’d say let’s have the passengers pay for the fuel directly. The airline no longer gets any markup or say in it. Your weight on that day factors in, just as the cost of fuel that day factors in. And if the plane is half full, you still pay your share of what it takes to get the plane in the air. (rebates if the jet stream helps you land with leftover fuel)

    Minus the fuel, you airline ticket purchase is now about getting you there on time with a minimum of fuss and discomfort. I’d love to see what a ticket would look like if most of the price was a surcharge!

  13. being 6’3″ and 210ish lbs, i would gladly pay my weight if it meant having a seat that would fit my body

    1. In our recent bit of flying, the seats were *just* big enough for my wife and I (maybe less so if we’d been sitting next to strangers with pointy elbows and laptops) but the seat belts were random lengths.  Same model and variant of plane on each flight, but some belts fit with room to spare and one did not even close.

      1.  I’ve had this experience as well. Also, most airlines I’ve encounters treat inability to use “normal” seatbelts as if your mobility is severely impaired. Which means you can’t sit where the emergency exits are..

  14. The one advantage to this idea is that families would go back to half-price seats for kids instead of paying full fare for everyone.

    I realize that would be an advantage for families only, not other passengers.

    1. Because using “men” to refer to men and “females” to refer to women is hideous?

  15. Fancy having your flight interrupted by urgent medical attention needed to fellow passengers who dehydrated and took laxatives prior to weigh-in then went straight onto the plane?

  16. Why should I have to subsidize the cost of lifting fatties into the sky? Weight based tickets seem fair to me.  

    Also, I demand that tickets be priced not in absolute dollar amounts but as a progressively graduated percentage of my gross annual income.   I’ll be happy to bring my IRS forms along, although the IRS really should just issue everyone a national ID card that states gross annual income for purposes of ticket pricing and other purchases in a variety of situations.   No I’m not joking.  Well, maybe a little.

  17. Or they could just make most of economy have even smaller seats and force anyone bigger to go to economy plus or business. That solves the problem of actually having to weigh anyone (which is a bit degrading) and you’ll probably even be able to cram more people into the airplane.

  18. I think we should just feed economists through the spinning jet turbines. It would solve so many more pressing issues…

  19. I’m 6’4″ / 250 lbs, not obese. If heavy people have to pay more then the airline has to better accommodate big people in general. They’ll soon be charging for the air you breath. 

  20. They’d have to have some base rate, just to pay for flying the plane.  Otherwise they’d lose out if the plane happened to be full of petite women.

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