Thursday, January 12, 2012

Merry Christmas Sir...you ate too much this holiday so you owe us $7 more before boarding

It's a New Year and that means many us (including myself) have been gorging ourselves during the holidays. We may have put on a few extra pounds, but that's okay. Those strict baggage restrictions only apply to your suitcase and not to your waist. Well, now a former Qantas economist is saying that should stop.

Basically, all flight operations require a weight (mass) and balance calculation. The aircraft weight influences performance, such as takeoff, landing, cruise, etc. It has an impact on fuel burn; the more the plane weighs the more fuel it burns. This is why it costs airlines money to fly fuel around. Therefore, they put the minimum necessary but within safety limits (don't worry, the flight crew are looking at the numbers too and don't want to leave without enough go-go juice). Other things weigh down the aircraft, such as the plane itself, baggage, catering, cargo, and of course, the passengers. Aviation authorities have established standard weights (about 95 kg in the EU) for passengers (also children and infants) and includes their carry on luggage. Some are even differentiated between summer and winter since we tend to wear more clothing during the winter. These weights are reviewed sometimes and adjusted to more accurately reflect the average weight of passengers. This makes calculations easier, although if the staff note that they are flying a sumo team around rather than "average" passengers they can make weight adjustments to more accurately reflect reality. Well, it seems as if this economist thinks too many people have become larger and that they are having a negative impact on profit.

Now, the economist does note that weighing passengers is not procedurally likely (although, it is routinely done when flying with passengers in smaller aircraft), he does say, "“As the obesity crisis worsens, however, and the price of jet fuel continues to spiral upward, such user-pay charge may be something the airlines can't ignore for too much longer."

This is an interesting note of airline operations. If economists (albeit retired ones) are concerned about the weight of their passengers squashing profits then there are more fundamental principles that are flawed at the airline. There's the age old story of former American Airlines CEO, Robert Crandell, removing an olive from salads and saving the airline $400,000 annually (http://readingeagle.com/article.aspx?id=208842). This is money that can be used more efficiently elsewhere, but I hope it isn't what saved the airline from bankruptcy (at least for a few decades). If air travel has gotten to the point that everything small item needs to be added to the bill maybe it should go both ways. My recent trans-Atlantic crossing was in a seat that would not recline. Maybe I should be entitled to $10 as a refund. Airlines could have an a la carte menu for passengers when demanding refunds:
No reclining seat
IFE not available
Late pushback
Late arrival
Delayed baggage
Bumpy taxi
Cabin attendant failed to smile
Couldn't open the hermetically sealed plastic bag containing the headphones

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