Should Airline Ticket Prices Reflect The Passenger's Weight Or Size?

With airline ticket prices rising and carriers charging more and more for things that used to be free, people are becoming sensitive over both what they pay for a ride and the quality of the experience relative to the cost of a ticket.

Airlines, giving as a reason the cost of fuel, are charging for bags that used to be free. However, passengers who are paying more start to notice things. Let's imagine a 120 lb woman being charged $100 for a 30 lb bag whereas a 300 lb passenger with the same ticket but no bag escaping the charge while burdening the aircraft with twice the weight.

I think anyone would have to admit that such a situation cries out for a solution.

Here's another situation. Passenger A and passenger B both paid $428 for their seats. However, passenger A is a slim $110 lb person seated next to a 440 lb person. Passenger A finds that, not only does he/she have no access to the armrest, but that the bigger person's body spreads under the armrest on to passenger A's seat. Is this fair?

What are the solutions to these two situations, if indeed there are any?

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In terms of passenger weight, I'm not sure it has significant impact on the actual cost of operating the plane.  Even if it does, I don't think it is all that relevant to ticket pricing logic and baggage fees.  The restriction is usually set on size, not weight (at least that has been the case when I have flown).  

It would cost me $700 to fly to Toronto from Vancouver and back if I wanted to leave in a week or so.  It did cost me $1200 to do the same on the cheapest flights toward the end of December in 2011.  The cost to the airline to run the latter flight is quite likely lower than the former (regardless of the weight of the passengers), so why the dramatic difference in price?  The airline is simply trying to maximize profit on average.

With regard to the second situation, I find it hard to apply the word 'fair' one way or the other.  I've been that poor skinny bastard a number of times, and it is unpleasant.  I've also been sat next to charming, attractive ladies on flights.  You lose some; you win some.  It is shared transit, and it should be accepted up front that there is a bit of a gamble when it comes to seating arrangements.  For airlines that have policies demanding customers over a certain size purchase two seats, I don't have a problem with this in principle for those that truly are too obese to fit a single seat properly.  My only consideration here is that the policy is clearly stated up front with specific and consistently enforced regulation.

Now, I have heard airlines justify charging for checked-in bags based on the rising cost of fuel with more weight resulting in the burning of more fuel, and if that's so, why not pay for one's trip by the total poundage?

Yesterday, I heard someone ask "Why do all seats have to be on-size-fits-all, when people don't come that way?" Makes sense on one level, but one never knows how many of any particular weight category will want to fly. I can envision instead of individual seats, a bench, and with adjustable armrests. Not a perfect solution but it beats assuming everyone is only 18 wide!

"...why not pay for one's trip by the total poundage?"

That's what I was explaining.  I don't think their weight justification is true.  It's just something that sounds nice and plausible.  The total price is more likely based on opportunism than anything else.  Prices will be set based on selling out seats.  If they are assured to sell out seats or can add fees that won't reduce seat sales, then you'll see a mark up in price.

I think Unseen was not merely thinking about the ticket prices, but also stuff like luggage. For example, Lufthansa makes you pay 10€ extra for every excess kg of baggage. That's ridiculous if you really think about it, because those overweight people carry more than a few kg excess in their gut and they don't have to pay extra just because it's attached to their body, and we don't want to be mean.

I included luggage in my reply.

Inb4 fat people whine about discrimination and make up conditions to blame their weight on.

Yeah let em pay more. Why is s/he allowed to carry weight in form of fat for free while I'm getting financially raped over excess weight in my baggage? Weight that's probably only a fraction of what that fat guys gut weighs. There's so much I hate about air travel, especially about how all the wrong people get all the benefits. Like why does a woman with a bunch of loud stupid fucking babies and a stroller get to board first? Let her be last. They should have to pay extra for each baby and treat them like baggage.

I think it was a mistake to use fuel costs the excuse for raising their fees. As capitalist entities, they should just say that they needed to do something to increase profits, which is really what it's all about.

Also, I find that people who've raised children are bothered a lot less by crying babies on a plane than people who haven't. I'm just sayin'. I'm an ex-parent (in the sense that my kid is grown up) and I can honestly say that a crying baby on a plane is vaguely relaxing, since it brings back pleasant memories.

(See: Unseen has a heart after all!)

That's great man. For you, that is. But for those of us who never got used to the loud, shrieking, inane and incessant whining of kids it's pure torture. The worst thing is when you look at the parents and those assholes are not even concerned! They don't even look at their kids for a second and at least try to silent them a little, but instead just let the little demons scream. They flat out don't give a shit about other passengers. Some even look at your face and expect you to think it's cute.

edit: ok enough of my off topic rant, sorry Unseen. Like I said, let chubbies pay.

Sorry Unseen, but this unfortunately lacks basics of economics. A scheduled flight will use X amount of fuel, and adding an additional passenger, irregardless of weight or size, will add n, where n is a small number, to the total costs. A 737-800 weighs around 60.000kg. A fairly rotund adult will weigh at most 0.15% of that, thus adding little to total weight. In fact, the marginal cost of an additional passenger is pretty much close to zero, which, if you are (perversely, like me) interested in the airline industry, you would/should know is actually the major problem for the profitability of the sector.

The price of airline seats has nothing to do with the characteristics of the buyer, unless he or she "spills over" into an adjacent seat and thus reduces potential occupancy, but with basic supply/demand.

From a finance side: Do not ever invest in airlines. Last time (2003) I checked, $100 invested in airlines in 1980 would be worth around $14. Probably even less today...

"Tony Webber, a former chief economist for the Australian airline Qantas, has pointed out that, since 2000, the average weight of adult passengers on its planes has increased by two kilos. For a large, modern aircraft like the AirbusA380, that means that an extra $472 of fuel has to be burned on a flight from Sydney to London." (source)

To be sure, $472 doesn't seem all that much money, perhaps about 40 or 50 cents per seat, but airlines are having a hard time making any money in today's economic climate, making every penny count. So, maybe using the same logic by which cargo can be charged by weight, why not passengers?

Still, one wonders how it is that Southwest can make a profit and still give a passenger two checked-in pieces of luggage at no charge while other airlines have to charge $50 each for the same bags and also charge a couple hundred dollars more per ticket.

Airlines have had a hard time making money since the sixties. The marginal cost of adding one additional unit of supply is close to zero, which means ticket prices will be close to zero since they are priced out of the marginal cost. The other issue is that the major cost factor is the plane itself (depreciation), making planes lose money even while standing still with no passenger weight added or fuel being burnt. As I recall, on a flight around 80-85% of total costs (may be a bit less today with higher fuel prices) are decided beforehand, adding the passengers, and especially the marginal or fat passenger, will not change the costs in any meaningful way. It's a horrible industry with perverse incentives towards overinvestment in supply and underpricing of product. 

I have seen suggestions that passengers+luggage are weighed together, which seems like a good idea on the face of it. But I doubt the first airline to do so would be particularly well received.

Southwest is an interesting case indeed (and very popular in b-school). The gist of their strategy is to keep the planes flying continually, max 20-30 mins on the ground, point-to-point service instead of hub-and-spoke, and light touch service.

Transportation is important to the economy. Perhaps we're getting to the point where the airline industry needs to be nationalized in the way Amtrak was nationalized. A ride between Portland, Oregon, where I lived until recently, and Seattle could cost as little as $40. And when I went, I spent money there that I wouldn't have spent at home. So, it's good for the economy.

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