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Samoa Air First Airline to Charge Customers By Weight

Words by Leon Kaye

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]

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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