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Should an airline be allowed to weigh its passengers?

The Department of Transportation determined that Hawaiian Airlines has the right to seat its passengers according to weight, making the airline the third in the world to put its customers on a scale. 

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An airline employee stands next to a sign for where to check-in for Hawaiian Airlines flights to Pago Pago, American Samoa at Honolulu International Airport in Honolulu on Oct. 10, 2016.

Jennifer Sinco Kelleher/AP

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Hawaiian Airlines has officially become the latest airline to weigh its passengers before boarding, following a controversial decision by the US Department of Transportation. 

Rather than allowing passengers to book seats prior to check in, the airline will now assign seats to passengers based on their weight. The new policy ensures that passenger weight is evenly distributed around the cabin, and aims to cut down on airplane fuel costs. 

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The policy, which was approved by the Department of Transportation earlier this month, follows a voluntary six-month survey conducted by the airline, in which they found that passengers and their bags were, on average, about 30 pounds heavier than anticipated. Officials with the department defended the airline's right to weigh its passengers, arguing that a more even distribution of weight could save money and make a crash landing less risky. 

But the policy, which makes Hawaiian Airlines the third airline to weigh its passengers, has received criticism from unhappy customers who say that the practice is discriminatory – especially given that the only people to whom the new policy applies are those on flights between Honolulu and American Samoa.

"What they're saying is Samoans are obese," one critic, Atimua Migi, told the Associated Press.

Samoans have some of the highest obesity rates in the world, with 91 percent of Samoan women and 80 percent of Samoan men either overweight or obese as of 2010. But a spokesman for Hawaiian Airlines called accusations from Mr. Migi and others an "entirely incorrect assumption," and the Department of Transportation determined that the policy was not discriminatory. 

The controversial decision makes Hawaiian Airlines the third airline to introduce weigh-ins for customers. Last year, Uzbekistan Airways announced that it would begin weighing its passengers to determine how much weight they would add to the plane.

Samoa Air – which also serves a largely Samoan clientele – was the first airline to introduce such a policy when in 2013 it implemented a pay-as-you-weigh fare structure, on the grounds that people taking up more space on the plane should pay more money.

"The next step is for the industry to make those sort of changes and recognize that 'Hey, we are not all 72 kilograms (about 160 pounds) anymore and we don't all fit into a standard seat,''' Chris Langton, Samoa Air chief executive told CNN at the time. "What makes airplanes work is weight. We are not selling seats, we are selling weight." 

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The concept of putting passengers on a scale and charging according to weight has been praised as a wise business decision by some economists. 

"Charging according to weight and space is a universally accepted principle, not only in transportation, but also in other services," wrote Dr. Bharat P. Bhatta, associate professor of economics at Norway's Sogn og Fjordane University College, in a paper published in the Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management in 2013. "As weight and space are far more important in aviation than other modes of transport, airlines should take this into account when pricing their tickets." 

But some have questioned whether such policies are culturally realistic, especially in the United States. 

"The Samoan passengers have lost the battle with the transportation department, but they may end up winning the war that matters most to airlines: the one on the battlefield of public opinion, fought with dollars and cents," wrote one columnist for The Economist following the Department of Transportation's recent decision. "That might ultimately compel Hawaiian Airlines to come up with a different solution to meet its safety standards, one that doesn’t smack of unequal treatment."