Obesity Crisis Will Transform the Airline Industry and Flight Costs

According to a recent article published in the Washington Post, Samoa Air is no longer charging passengers on international flights based on their seats but rather based on their weight, along with that of their luggage. It will cost passengers 93 cents to $1.06 for each kilogram, or 2.2 pounds.

For example, if we assume that the average American woman is 20 to 40 pounds overweight — say 195 pounds, carrying a 35-pound bag, she would pay $97 for a one-way trip between Apia, Samoa, Pago Pago and American Samoa. According to the same article in the Washington Post, competitors usually charge between $130 and $140 round-trip for the same routes. In the U.S., 63.1% of adults were either obese or overweight in 2009.

Islands in the Pacific have the highest rates of obesity worldwide. According to the WHO, the prevalence of obesity is 74.6% in American Samoa, 54.8% in Samoa, 74.9% in Nauru, and 61.4% in the Cook Islands.

This new policy launched in June, the airline has been using it since November, but in January the U.S. Department of Transportation approved its international route between American Samoa and Samoa.

Chris Langton, Samoa Airline’s chief executive, explained: “planes are run by weight and not by seat, and travellers should be educated on this important issue. The plane can only carry a certain amount of weight and that weight needs to be paid. There is no other way.” Langton added that passengers who require more space will be given one row on the plane to guarantee comfort.

David Vaeafe, executive director of the American Samoa Visitors Bureau, defended the introduction of this policy and said that the planes used between the islands are small. Samoa Air’s fleet is formed of two nine-passengers planes for commercial routes and a three-passenger plane for an air taxi service. Vaeafe views this strategy as a “fair concept for passengers.”

Langton said that the airline got mixed responses since it began promoting the new policy, some passengers have been surprised but no one refused to be weighted yet.

Samoa’s Director General of Health, Palanitina Toelupe, said the airline’s plan could be a good way to promote weight loss and healthy living.

Generally, airline pricing is highly complex. The price might defer between two persons going on the same flight to the same place on the same day and time. A number of variables are taken into account such as competition, demand and supply, fuel price, types of passengers, the route and operating costs, high fixed costs, airport costs and whether discount airline fly in a market … and in Samoa Air there’s another variable: weight.

Rob Britton, a former American Airlines executive, said that nowadays airfares are more like Coca-Cola. Airfares largely depend on where you are rather than the distance traveled.

What do you think of Samoa Air’s pricing strategy? Is it fair to charge passengers based on their weight? Is it a good measure to promote weight loss? Or do you prefer the more conventional method of airfares? 

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Olga Jbeili

I hold an MSc in Development Economics and a Graduate Diploma in Economics from the University of Sussex. Most recently I was working as a research officer at Sussex uni. I previously worked at the Carnegie Endowment in Beirut where I assisted scholars in researches related to food security and land acquisitions, peak-oil and rentier economies, sovereign wealth funds, labour markets among other topics... I am also particularly interested in the political economic situation in the developing and emerging economies and how this relationship might affect growth and long-run development.

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