While browsing my CNN app on my Nook, I came across one of the most shocking headlines I’d seen in a long time: “Airline boss defends pay-per-weight ticketing.” My first reaction to this was, “I cannot believe this! How can someone even imagine charging airline passengers by their weight?” Intrigued (and to be truthful, a little disgusted) I tapped the link and read on.
The article was about the head of Samoa Air defending the airline’s new policy of charging passengers by their weight. He argued that “such a system is not only fair but the future for other airlines. …The next step is for the industry to make those sort of changes and recognize that … we are not all 72 kilograms (160 pounds) anymore and we don’t all fit into a standard seat.”
Samoa Air is the first to charge only by weight. The airline put this policy into effect in November for domestic flights, and only just recently for international flights.
After a few more quotes from Chris Langton, Samoa Air chief executive, the article continued with some facts about the South Pacific airline. The airline is small, with only three planes – two 10-seaters and one 4-seater – and flies to Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Niue, Tokelau, the North Cook Islands, and French Polynesia. Samoa Air was also planning on buying a larger plane from the Airbus A320 family (which can hold up to 220 passengers) for future flights to Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji.
Checking out the airline’s website, I got a sense of déjà vu when I read the regulations section: Passengers are defined as following: Infant – Under 24 Months of age; Child – Above 24 Months, under 12 years of age; Adult – 12 years of age and older. The airline defines “baggage” as the “baggage carried on by you and the baggage carried for you either on or in conjunction with your flight”. Each passenger has a free 10 kg (22 lbs) baggage allowance, and the bag cannot exceed the total dimensions of 158 cm (62 in). Also, you can take a carry-on bag for free if it weighs less than 3kg (6 lbs) and can be stowed under your seat.
The shock factor was starting to wear off. All that sounded pretty normal to me.
The next thing I looked at was the booking process. The airline’s website has a section clearly labeled “How does pay-by-weight work?” and so I went there. All you have to do to book a ticket is select the places you are departing from and arriving to, just like for any airline website. Then there’s an extra section where you type in an estimated weight, which is comprised of the passenger’s weight and the total weight of baggage that the passenger will be putting on the plane. Based on the destination and the weight you entered, a price is calculated and you pre-pay this “guesstimate” price.
When you arrive at the airport, you and your luggage is weighed to get an accurate weight. If the weight at the airport exceeds what you paid online, you simply pay the different at the airport. The airline gives you a 2% “fiddle factor”, so you don’t have to worry too much about meeting your pre-paid weight limit exactly. The only down side about the booking system is that if you come to the airport with less weight than what you paid for, you’re not likely to get a refund for the difference.
I decided to try it for myself. On that “how does it work?” page, there’s also a little box where you can “test out” the pricing method. There is a scroll-down menu where you can select a few of the airline’s destinations, and then a space to enter in a weight amount. I selected Pago Pago, American Samoa as the destination. That was an international flight, so I figured it’d be the priciest and would give me a good “maximum” estimation price. Then I entered in the average American’s weight (85 kgs, 180 lbs) plus the weight of a normal airline baggage limit weight (14 kgs, 30 lbs); this totaled to 99 kgs, or 210 lbs. And then I clicked the “calculate” button.
The estimated price? 210 Samoan Talla.
Take a moment and guess at how much 210 Talla is when converted into US Dollars… It totals up to a whopping $92!
Next I did the same flight search in a popular search engine, Orbitz. I chose October 24th as the flight date, since October is six months away, and six months ahead is the recommended time frame to purchase plane tickets. I also chose to search a one-way flight, since I wasn’t sure if the Samoa Air website’s estimate was one-way or round-trip.
The cheapest flight ran $1580.
(Now, just to make sure things are in perspective, this flight was between two islands which were about 120 miles apart. That subdues the shock of a price tag of $92 a little, but not much when you’re comparing a price tag of $1580.)
Now I was definitely intrigued. This was no longer an outrageous proposal – this was an amazing opportunity to fly way cheaper than with a flat-rate ticket price. Langton also told CNN that families who used the airline were pleased with the pricing model because cost less to fly children using the pay-by-weight model than it would to purchase flat-fare seats.
Although the topic was obviously a touchy one, it was starting to make sense. Airline analyst Vaughn Cordle makes a valid point when saying that “for [Samoa Air] … weight restrictions are the key practical problem they have to deal with on every flight… The nature of their business model, island-hopping with a small aircraft, they have to do it… The cost per pound is so high on those light airplanes.”
And those working for Samoa Air aren’t the only ones with this line of thought. Dr. Bharat P. Bhatta, an economics scholar in Norway, published a paper on this topic last year. In it, he notes that “a reduction of 1 kilo weight of a plane will result in fuel savings worth US$3,000 a year and a reduction of CO2 emissions by the same token.” Bhatta advises that “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.”
In 2008, Air Canada also made a move to reduce the costs of flight. One of the airline’s carriers, Jazz, removed life vests from all its planes to save weight and fuel. Jazz was able to do this because of Canada regulations which allow airlines to use floatation devices instead of life vests as long as the planes remain within 50 miles of shore. This wasn’t a problem for Jazz, since it is a transcontinental carrier. The only water Jazz flights see is the Great Lakes and the shoreline along the Eastern seaboard from Halifax to New York. By doing this, Jazz was able to make each flight 25 kilograms (55 pounds) lighter.
By the time I had finished reading this article, I had flipped my opinion on this topic. I totally agree with Samoa Air’s choice to use a pay-by-weight system, and believe that other airlines should start thinking about implementing this concept. Unfortunately, it will be very unlikely to see large commercial airlines using this system. There is the negative publicity connected with using weight as a factor in payment, as well as the practical purposes of weighing hundreds of passengers at the gate. But I believe it is very doable for smaller airlines, or even transcontinental carriers.