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Samoa Air First Airline to Charge Customers By Weight

Leon Kaye | Friday April 5th, 2013 | 12 Comments
Samoa Air, charge by weight, obesity, Leon Kaye, airlines, airline passengers, Chris Langdon, travel, overweight passengers

Samoa Air charges customers by weight

Should bigger passengers pay more to fly on Samoa Air? Flying has long lost its glamour appeal for a bevy of reasons–among them the pesky charges airlines impose on baggage, meals and pillows–some air carriers charge to pick your own seat ahead of time. Now Samoa Air has stepped into new territory: the tiny South Pacific airline has a new policy charging passengers by how much they, and their luggage, weigh.

We road warriors all have our airline stories, including ones of sitting next to someone who is, well, on the portly side. During a 14-hour flight last year my six-foot frame was wedged next to an enormous oil rig worker whose mass, well, impinged on my seat. Not that I was going to say anything: it was a long flight, I had a few supplements and prescriptions to knock me out, and anyway he was flying home because his brother “had too much vodka and decided to play Russian roulette with his rifle.” Mental amputation, not confrontation, was the better bet for me on that long and very uncomfortable haul.

The Economist’s witty Gulliver blog has long covered the touchy issue of airline passengers and their weight. And true, the simple laws of physics make it obvious that transporting bigger people consumes more fuel. To that end, Gulliver calls Samoa Air’s decision “an inspired piece of marketing.” Others who do not view everything from an MBA’s lens may differ on this charge by weight policy.

The problem is trying to address the issue: no airline has been able to address this issue tactfully. Southwest Airlines’ policy of requiring large passengers to buy an extra seat resulted in a lawsuit. Alaska Airlines’ policy is a tad more delicate. According to the blog Gadling, overweight passengers on United Airlines have to “prove” seat belts go all the way down. Yes, obesity is a health problem here in the U.S. But is public humiliation really the answer? And this has long been a problem for companies outside the commercial aviation industry. Years ago, 24-Hour Fitness attempted to appeal to those who were overweight with an ad campaign featuring aliens that blared, “Whey they come, they will eat the fat ones first.” Talk about an epic fail, pre-hashtag days.

So will Samoa Air succeed with this policy? Well, apparently Samoa has its own obesity challenge. But do airborne Samoans really need to be reminded–even though Samoa Air’s fleet is mostly puddle jumpers in which large variances of weight can make a difference in safety?

Samoa Air certainly has some work to do on the communications front. You cannot brag “The Sky’s the Limit” and then penalize passengers based on their weight. According to the airline’s marketing team, booking a ticket is, “Well, its (sic) simple really”:

  1. Customers select “Make A Booking” and choose the flight between the company’s three destinations.
  2. Enter in your personal details, i.e. weight, including your baggage.
  3. The airfare is then calculated and then the fun, or humiliation, begins.
  4. Don’t worry, we will weigh you again at the airport.” But take as many bags as you wish. (Full disclosure: Samoa Air’s web site is the first business site I encountered that has more typos than the average article I type for 3p.)

Let’s suppose I want to travel from Faleolo to Pago Pago. I weigh approximately 88 kilos, or 194 pounds (I do not own a scale, I’m no fool, and as someone who works out, I resent this policy.). My fare would be 186 Samoan tala, or about $81. If I had flown at my high school weight of 63 kilos (just under 140 pounds), which came close to occurring after my trip last month to India, I would have saved $30 ($133 tala). Should I spike to 300 pounds/136 kilos (always a possibility if you adore breakfast burritos and pasta like I do), up goes the fare to $125 (288 tala).

That is before luggage, taxes and who knows what other fees.

At per capita income averaging just under $3,000 in Samoa, these are not minor differences in price (though in fairness most passengers appear to be foreign tourists). But beyond the problematic pricing, privacy issues and basic customer care all present huge challenges for the airline–not to mention the logistics, even if you have no emotional or intellectual stake in the issue. Samoa Air’s CEO, Chris Langdon, did not really help the issue when he claimed this policy had promoted health awareness in Samoa. Langdon also claims this policy is more fair, especially for passengers with children.

It is true airlines pay for how much weight they transfer, not individual people or items. But Samoa Air has become another airline handling this emotional issue rather clumsily.

What do you think? Is there a better way to deal with overweight passengers, or is Samoa Air’s policy spot on?

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable BrandsInhabitat and Earth911. At Better4Business in Anaheim on May 2, he will join a panel discussing how companies can present their CSR initiatives to the media. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

[Image credit: Samoa Air]


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  • Cotri Dretno

    And air travel just continues its death-by-1000-cuts…

    That said, if you think obesity is bad in the US, it’s beyond bad in Samoa and other South Pacific islands. There may be some legitimate reasoning behind this, there are some *really* large people in Samoa.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jen.boynton Jen Boynton

    Yeah – what makes this policy so interesting is that Samoans are often just huge – both in height and weight. And, awesomely, (among the few dozen I’ve met over the years) totally unapologetic about it.

    What makes this policy potentially humiliating is the fact that obscene standards of thinness-as-goodness proliferate in many cultures in the world. But if you don’t have society telling you you’re fat and that’s bad, this isn’t such a humiliating policy.

    Would it be humiliating for a Swedish cruise company to provide sunscreen in all passenger bathrooms? No, because it’s not a personal failure to have cancer-prone skin, it’s just genetics.

    Of course, we do have plenty of fat-shaming in this world, which makes this a pretty potentially humiliating policy. But I can imagine the powers that be at Samoan Air enacting this policy in a matter-of-fact way without thinking about how it would feel to their customers from other cultures.

    • http://twitter.com/LeonKaye Leon Kaye

      Here’s the thing… I’m curious to know how many Samoans fly on this airline… And while I understand the logic … I am bothered at how humiliating this could be …

      • http://www.facebook.com/jen.boynton Jen Boynton

        yeah, totally. I’m guessing it’s a policy borne of Samoan Airline execs who don’t have the cultural awareness of the humiliation factor that’s going to be applied to passengers who are going to freak out. Fun for all!

        • http://twitter.com/LeonKaye Leon Kaye

          Well it’s interesting because all the pics show people who I don’t think . . . are Samoan.

      • Lionel Babcock

        It’s called “Samoa Air”. I would imagine it caters primarily to Samoans :-)

  • twin otter

    This policy might inflame some people but I think it is very fair.
    Airlines already charge for extra baggage and hit you per KG if your bags exceed the limit.
    It will be great for families with kids and many women will benefit as well.
    Brilliant strategy …..a KG is a KG….it doesn’t get any fairer than that.

  • Nancy Schneider

    It’s about burning fossil fuels, not picking on overweight people. Skinny people with lots of luggage have to pay up also. While we burn up the planet we worry about being PC.

  • Michael S

    What if we looked at weight based on age? I always think it is absurd that a two-year old child costs as much as an adult. I love the idea, not because I’m under average weight for my age, but because it is based on pure economics. If you bring on a 50 kilo bag you would expect to pay more than someone who travels light. The policy doesn’t imply anything about being ‘overweight’, as it takes into consideration your total ‘package’ of person and belongings. Very fair.

  • Michael S

    By the way, weight is not just a function of body fat, it is also about height and proportion. It is well documented among men in the workforce that tall men have proportionately higher incomes than shorter men (on average). Taller men generally will weigh more, but hey, they can afford the extra cost! : )

  • http://www.triplepundit.com Nick Aster

    Small planes such as the Britten Norman pictured above have major issues with weight. It’s completely normal to weigh passengers when flying on a plane like that.

    Any small plane pilot will weigh everything, every bag, every passenger. The reason is to calculate the amount of fuel needed as well as for safety reasons. Too much weight and you might not be able to take off – entirely possible with a packed load on a flight like that.

    It’s a bit unusual to charge the passengers accordingly, but not entirely out of line, IMHO. I would not expect major airlines to start doing this any time soon.

  • Gareth

    Correct Michael S – I don’t see any problem with this. Planes carry freight – human and other. Why should it not all be charged by the same unit?