Samoa Air has taken a novel and extraordinary measure to cope with rising obesity-- the carrier is charging passengers based on how much they weigh, not the value of their seats.
Samoa Air is the first airline to implement such a policy, and company officials claim they're simply seeking to raise public awareness about health and obesity issues.
"This is the fairest way of traveling," Samoa Air’s chief executive, Chris Langton, told ABC Radio of Australia.
"There are no extra fees in terms of excess baggage or anything -- it is just a kilo, is a kilo, is a kilo."
Under the new pricing policy, passengers are weighed on scales at the airport, and then pay a price that varies depending on the length of the flight. Samoa Air said ticket prices range from $1 a kilogram on the shortest domestic routes, to about $4.16 a kilogram for trips between Samoa and neighboring American Samoa, ABC Radio reported.
All things being relatively equal, someone weighing 300 pounds would pay twice as much as a passenger who tilts the scales at 150 pounds to travel the same exact route.
"People generally are becoming much more weight conscious," Langton said. "That's a health issue in some areas. It has raised the awareness of weight."
Samoa Air operates two aircraft – a Britten-Norman BN-2A Islander twin-engine and a Cessna 172 single engine propeller plane. The national flag carrier offers domestic flights and trips to neighboring American Samoa.
"The people that have been most pleasantly surprised are families because we don't charge on the seat requirement, even though a child is required to have a seat -- we just weigh them,” he told ABC.
“So, a family of maybe two adults and a couple of mid-sized kids and younger children can travel at considerable less than what they were being charged before."
In a research paper published in the Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management, a Norway-based economist, Bharat P. Bhatta, estimated that each two pounds of weight that a plane loses would result in annual savings of $3,000 in fuel costs.
"It's a new concept," Langton admitted. "As any airline operators knows, airlines don't run on seats, they run on weight. People generally are bigger, wider and taller than they were 50 years ago. It is an area where the industry will start looking at this."
Captain Al Langelaar, a San Francisco-based Boeing 747-400 captain for a major U.S. airline, told IBTimes that he agrees with Langton.
Langelaar, who is also a partner with Aero Consulting Experts, said he believes major airlines in Europe, the U.S. and other countries may soon adopt a similar pay-what-you-weigh policy in light of rising fuel costs and a growing obesity epidemic.
“If, and when, this policy is enacted by western airlines, some people will raise objections, over civil rights and discriminatory issues, but I think most of the flying public would accept it because they are concerned about safety,” he said.
In fact, some carriers, including Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV) and British Airways (PINK: BAIRY), already require obese passengers to pay for, and occupy, two seats if one seat can't sufficiently handle their girth.
In some instances, overweight passengers have been removed from full flights that couldn't accommodate their excess weight.
In one particularly tragic case in June 2010, an overweight man named Sandy Russell was forced from an Air Transat flight from Gatwick, London to Toronto because he couldn't cough up the £928 ($1,413) required for two seats. He was planning to visit an aunt stricken with cancer – she died two days later.
"I was absolutely devastated,” Russell told tabloid News of the World. “I hardly cry, and there I was reduced to tears out of frustration and humiliation in the middle of the airport."
Langelaar pointed out that excess weight on an airplane can lead to disaster – in January 2003, a US Air Express aircraft crashed because it was overloaded with too much weight.
Indeed, Air Midwest Flight 5481, operating as US Airways Express -- a Beechcraft 1900-D aircraft slightly larger than the bigger of the two aircraft operated by Samoa Air -- flying from Charlotte, N.C. to Spartanburg, S.C., crashed soon after takeoff and killed all 21 people on board, including 19 passengers and two pilots.
A subsequent investigation revealed the plane was 580 pounds above its maximum allowable takeoff weight. Langelaar noted that there have been many crashes due to overweight and out-of-balance airplanes over the years.
Langelaar explained that a safe, airplane journey can depend on three fixed weights – the aircraft itself, fuel and cargo. The “wild card” is the aggregate weight of the passengers and their carry-on bags.
“Airlines use an ‘assumed weight’ for each flight based on safety considerations,” he said. “Generally, it’s 180 pounds per passenger in the summer and 185 pounds in the winter, even for children. With [the lower] weight for women and children, the [overall] weight should balance out with heavier passengers."
Of course, if a large percentage of fliers tip the scales at 250, 300, or even 350 pounds, safety could be compromised.
Despite the obvious sensitive issues that a pay-by-weight policy may raise, many in the flying public seems to back it.
“Airlines … clearly don’t want to cause offense to their larger passengers,” said Sam Poullain, a spokesman for Skyscanner, a flight search engine, according to trade publication, TTG Asia.
“However, we were surprised to see that among the general public, there is a significant majority who would welcome a tiered pricing for passengers depending on their weight.”
Samoa might make an ideal test case for a pay-according-to-weight policy. Indeed, Samoans suffer from one of the highest rates of obesity in the world.
Based on research conducted at Brown University, in Rhode Island, "westernization" and the attendant changes in diet that have replaced traditional fishing and agriculture activities have contributed to creating an obesity crisis in Samoa.
Instead of eating traditional low-fat foods like bananas, yams, taro root, coconut and fish, Samoans now consume processed and junk foods.
As a result, the World Health Organization estimated an astounding 93.5 percent of Samoans are overweight. (Assuming that mostly Samoans fly on Samoa Air, virtually every passenger would likely have to pay according to their weight).
“We think the level of obesity [in Samoa] could actually foreshadow what we see here in the U.S. and other high-income nations if we continue the way that we’re going,” said study author, Nicola Hawley, a post-doctoral research fellow in the Alpert Medical School at Brown University and the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center.
Hawley’s research also suggested that obesity in Samoans begin right from birth, with babies rapidly gaining weight, relative to American infants.
"It was actually extremely shocking. We know that adult obesity the Samoas is particularly high -- around 70 per cent of Samoan women are obese," Hawley told Radio Australia.
"And so we expected that it might extend into childhood, but the levels of obesity we see in infancy are just so surprising."
Hawley attributed it partially to maternal obesity.
"We know that there is a high level of overweight and obesity in women of child-bearing age in Samoa, and we know that those women who are overweight and obese are the ones that tend to gain more weight during pregnancy, and they are also at risk of gestational diabetes during pregnancy," she added.
In the U.S., more than one-third (35.7 percent) of adults are obese, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Meanwhile, in Europe, 20 percent of men, and 23 percent of women are obese, according to WHO, while more than 50 percent of people overall are overweight.
And many of these folks probably like to fly.