In an era where cash-strapped carriers are charging for luggage and meals, a tiny South Pacific airline is pioneering a radical pricing model that no other airline has dared to try: charging passengers based on their weight.
Customers flying Samoan upstart carrier Samoa Air Ltd. on short international hops to neighbouring American Samoa are set to pay US$0.92 per kilogram, or $0.42 a pound, for each flight.
Samoans are renowned for their girth. According to the World Health Organization, about 55.5% of the country’s population over the age of 20 is considered obese. Passenger weight is a major concern for Samoa Air because it only flies a fleet of small propeller planes that seat between three and 10 passengers each. That means a significantly overweight passenger could drastically reduce a plane’s capacity, which could threaten revenue.
“It’s a pay by weight system and it’s here to stay,” Samoa Air Chief Executive Chris Langton told The Wall Street Journal Wednesday. He noted that while a 160-kilogram person on Samoa Air will pay four times as much as a 40 kilogram person, the airline would ensure more space for the bigger passenger.
“We are like a shopkeeper; we are selling weight. But with the weight goes the responsibility of being able to seat the passenger comfortably,” he said.
The move prompted heated discussion on Samoa Air’s Facebook page, where many called for a boycott of the airline based on discrimination. One person said: “I used to be almost 200 pounds and just lost a lot of weight. When I first read this it kind of hurt. However, truth does hurt sometimes and I am all for getting people healthy.”
Others were fully supportive of the move, saying it was long overdue.
“The only people [complaining] are the heavy ones…at the post office when you have to pay extra for posting a heavy parcel; it’s the same thing,” wrote another poster.
While Samoa Air’s model could prompt a shake-up in the profit-starved industry, many of the world’s airlines have so far been reluctant to capitalize on passenger weight because of discrimination concerns.
But some carriers in the U.S., including Southwest Airlines, require passengers that can’t fit in a regular coach seat to buy an extra ticket when flights are full. They don’t, however, charge passengers per kilo or pound.
Passengers booking online with Samoa Air are asked to provide their approximate weight and that of their luggage before being given an estimated fare. However, passengers tempted to lie about their weight are warned on the website that they will be weighed ahead of boarding, which is standard practice for passengers boarding very small propeller planes.
Mr. Langton said knowing each passenger’s weight ahead of time allows the airline to change the configuration of an airplane to accommodate larger passengers. Samoa Air, which launched in June, flies regularly between Samoa and American Samoa, along with a handful of domestic flights.
Mr. Langton said the new model is considered family friendly as it charges children not for the seat they use but by their weight.
The airline plans to extend this pricing model when it introduces the Airbus A320 jet aircraft later this year. “We’re going to craft the aircraft so that the passenger who pays more [because of their weight] gets more,” said Mr. Langton.
Still, while this pay-as-you-weigh method may prove effective for a small commuter operation like Samoa Air, some analysts question whether the model would make business sense for large commercial carriers.
UBS Asian transport analyst Eric Lin says it makes no practical sense for airlines to have to weigh every one of their thousands of departing passengers each day.
“Airlines everywhere are trying to boost on-time performance, improve aircraft turnaround. The less time the aircraft is on the ground the better,” Lin said.
“Do [they] really want to weigh every passenger before they board? I don’t think so.”
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