Welcome to Qantas – could you please step on the scale?

Today, an anonymous guest post (from someone with an ANU connection) ponders airline pricing.

A recent article in the SMH reports that from February 1, Air France and KLM will begin charging obese passengers 75% of the cost of a second seat if they cannot fit into one seat. This story re-ignited an interesting question I’ve had regarding airline tickets. I have always been perplexed by the issue of pricing after a trip to the Middle East.

After spending far too much money on carpets in the souks, I arrived at the check-in counter at the airport to be told that my ticket only allowed 25kg of baggage and that my recent acquisitions had sent me 5kg over. If I wanted to take them with me, I had to pay the surcharge. The exact amount escapes me, but I was told it was to cover the cost of transporting the extra weight.

What puzzled me about the explanation was that standing at the next check-in counter was a sizable chap (possibly around 110kg) with 25kg of luggage. He wasn’t charged excess since his luggage was on the allowable limit, but if the price of a ticket represents the cost of transporting weight; your weight, surely his net impact on the overall weight of the plane is far greater? (I’m an average male, 175cm tall and weighing around 78kg). With my luggage, my total weight on the plane was 108kg, much less than the 145kg of my fellow passenger.

Simple flight dynamics says that the heavier the plane, the more fuel it will use to fly. Presumably, most other costs of operating an aircraft are fixed (salaries for crew, catering, landing and docking levies, lease payments on the aircraft), which leaves fuel. If the largest variable cost of running a plane is determined by the fuel used to transport the overall weight (plane, passengers and luggage) of the aircraft at takeoff, surely the current pricing mechanism for airline tickets is economically inefficient?

Wouldn’t it be far more efficient to charge people based on their total weight impact on the plane (i.e. body weight plus baggage)? That way, slim travellers with little luggage do not subsidise heavier people with large amount of baggage.

Any theories as to whether the suggestion of our anonymous poster could – well – fly?

(xposted @ Core Economics)

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14 Responses to Welcome to Qantas – could you please step on the scale?

  1. Cheryl Bookallil says:

    As a person who manages their health and weight sensibly, this issue has annoyed me for years. Only recently, when flying to Brisbane, my adult son who is very slight (~52 kg) was charged an extra $50 because his luggage was 2.7 kg over the 23 kg limit. Obesity is a looming health issue already having economic impact on the nations health services. Charging by total weight on all forms of transport might have the side effect of encouraging people to be more vigilant with their health and weight – however the “fat lobby” is very strong and would capture any regulating authority and/or claim discrimination against individual transporters under the legislation.

  2. Kevin Cox says:

    Cheryl next time I suggest your son to take 2.7 kgs of clothes out of his case and put them on as a double layer or carry them as hand luggage. I expect if he had asked the attendant to wait while he did that in the queue then the limit may have been waived.

  3. Mark says:

    I was checking in at Hong Kong to fly back to Australia with a couple of mates a few years ago. We have turned up with massive amounts of baggage after going nuts during our tour though china. The check in girl has looked at the baggage and told us straight up your going to have to pay a fair bit extra for all this luggage. Ahh haa but we flew our first leg on this journey to the USA where baggage limits are massive and that initial allowance is valid for all further legs of travel! ahh yes that old loop hole! we checked in close to 160kg between 3 of us, no extra charge. Standard allowance was (i think) only 20kg per person.

  4. Pedro X says:

    This can be exploited. I was about 5kg over weight on a flight from Germany. I had a big winter jacket with many pockets.

    I took out every heavy item I could, that included numerous books and stuffed them into the jacket. The jacket weighed in at 5kg but the luggage got through.

    Another way to look at the weight thing would be to try and figure out if the higher US allowance affects airline profits. If it doesn’t, then surely reasonable allowances are the way (pun unintended) to go.

  5. ladyconomist says:

    I think there are two components in the issue of optimal pricing of airline tickets; first the space occupied by people and luggage, second is the weight of the total cargo (people and their luggage).

    Smaller people dont take up any less space in terms of seat space, but they cost a bit less to move.

    I’d advocate a two part tariff – a fixed amount to board the plane and occupy one seat (or two if that is necessary) and then a component based on the total weight to be transported. This has the added benefit of all cargo being weighed, so that the amount of fuel required can be calculated more precisely and there’s less transporting of unnecessaary fuel.

  6. I think they’re mostly price discriminating and the amount of luggage you carry is a signal that you’re willing to pay more, while being fat is not.

  7. The most profitable customers for airlines are middle-aged men on expense accounts, who are typically overweight but often travel without luggage on day trips. It is not worth offending them by making them stand on scales at the airport.

  8. Don says:

    Andrew N’s comment gets to the nub.

    Airlines don’t charge a flat price for flights. Some passengers pay much more than others for the same trip. Is your ticket fully refundable? Did you book at the last minute? Are you using frequent flier points? If your employer paid, did you worry about the cost at all?

    Pricing is far more complicated than kilos, miles and which class you fly.

    The issue of excess baggage charges is really about perceptions of fairness rather than economics. It’s about people who resent paying extra for their baggage and are looking for a rationale to support their claim that it’s not fair.

    Charging people for something they have little control over (at least in the short term) would be perceived by many valuable customers as unfair and insulting. And that’s probably going to work out worse for an airline than charging for excess baggage (which just seems unfair to a group people who are probably less profitable than the people Andrew N identifies).

  9. conrad says:

    I’m surprised at all these charges that people say they get. I travel at least once a year every year (usually twice), and have done so for at least a decade. I almost always going over by a few kilos as I take a foldable bicycle with me (and that includes using all the usual tricks like stuffing things in my lap-top bag), but I’ve never once been charged for being over weight. Perhaps I fall into Andrew N’s category (although I like to think I’m not quite middle aged 🙂 ), and they’re instructed not to charge me. If not it would be handy to know which airlines do-and-don’t charge (I can add Qantas, Lufthansa, Air France, Cathay and Singapore to those that haven’t charged me).

  10. Cathal Kelly says:

    Not quite an on-topic answer, but …

    I know a large gentleman who was mortified when the check-in crew asked him to stand on the scales before issuing his boarding pass. When he asked why, he was told it was to decide what seat in the plane he would be allocated.

    Mind you, it was one of these flying machines, serving the short route between Galway and the Aran Islands.

  11. Patrick says:

    Amen, Kevin, our last trip to Europe went conveniently through the US so we came home with about 260kgs of luggage (I have a family).

    Two easy outs for marginal amounts are:
    – they almost never actually weigh hand luggage. I have flown to Sydney with a 16kg hand-luggage and took a similar weight bag from Lyon to Melbourne. Here it helps if you can make it look light, which some people couldn’t.
    – stuffing the pockets and filling the arms, as recommended.

    On-topic, whilst Andrew Norton is right, I am surprised that no budget airline has done this yet. Particularly, my kids are less than 80% of an average adult! Also, a lot of people might prefer the airline on which they knew there was less chance of an obese neighbour.

    In reality, this is only likely to be widespread if everyone is as unpleasant and demanding a traveller as I. I refuse to be seated next to someone who ‘spills over’ since I feel that I have paid for a full seat and not a portion of one. If everyone did this they’d think about it in a hurry!

  12. Norbert says:

    Readers of Moshe Adler’s “Economics for the Rest of Us” will have little problem solving the puzzle of airline prizing by passanger size. The straightforward way for airlines to deal with the problem would be to provide seats in different size-clases, charge according to cost, and let people choose which class to pay for. Most obese people would pay for a larger seat. It is even more unpleasant for them to be crammed in and to impose on their enighbors than it is for the neighbors. However, the airlines do not offer this choice, because they are already using seat size to price discriminate by income (willingness to spend). They offer larger seats in business class and first class for the affluent and prize these much higher than justified by the extra cost. This puts them in a bind. If they offered a choice of seats to everybody, too many peole might choose a large seat with no extra frills attached, instead of business class. The airlines could theoretically restrict the choice of a larger seat to obese people, but then skinny people would be outraged. Thus, they emulate this solution by charging really obese people for a second seat. It offends the obese, but these are still a minority.
    A solution might be for governments to impose seating arrangements in airplanes (coach class) that reflect the size distribution of the flying population at least in approximation. This would probalby make business class cheaper and the average coach classe seat more expensive, as airlines could not price discriminate according to affluence as well any more. But the welfare gain for coach passangers by having appropriate seat choices might outweigh the disadvantages even for them.

  13. Claire says:

    I have done exactly this successfully on Air North in Darwin, where the total baggage limit is about 14kgs on the small flights to aboriginal communities. I jumped on the baggage scale with my field equipment and was still under the “average” they use to determine passenger weight so they didn’t charge me.

  14. peter says:

    Flying on small planes on short-haul flights in Africa, I have often seen all the passengers weighed at check-in. The reason is to enable the crew to distribute weight roughly evenly across the plane, both side-to-side and fore-to-aft.

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