Pay-by-Weight Fares in Samoa Seen Unlikely to Be Copied

A three-plane Samoan airline charging passengers based on their weight seems unlikely to inspire imitators among the world’s largest carriers.

That was the reaction among consultants and the U.S. trade group Airlines for America as Samoa Air attracted international news coverage for weight-based pricing. Even in an industry that uses baggage fees in part to defray fuel costs for the extra load, tickets tied to fliers’ heft emerged as a step too far.

“It’s just impractical,” said Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks, an aviation consulting firm in Shorewood, Wisconsin, and a former Midwest Airlines marketing executive. “People will forever under-report their weight, as they do on their driver’s license, and you’ll have nothing but a fiasco when they check in at the airport. Operationally it would be a disaster.”

Samoa Air began using weight in fare calculations in November, and the pricing took effect yesterday on international routes, according to the airline. The carrier’s trio of propeller-driven aircraft -- two with 10 seats and one with four -- serve Samoa and other Pacific island nations.

The policy enables Samoa Air to maximize how much cargo it can carry and still meet the weight limits of its planes, Chief Executive Officer Chris Langton said in a telephone interview. Heavier passengers also get more room in the cabin without making other passengers uncomfortable, he said.

‘More Space’

“When we have people who are larger, we provide them with more space in the airplane,” Langton said. “A kilo is a kilo is a kilo, whether in the cargo compartment or first class or some other part of the aircraft.”

Samoa Air’s policy works this way: Passengers book flights and pay a fare based on their estimated weight and baggage. Both are weighed again at check-in, and prices are adjusted accordingly.

A 200-pound flier with a 35-pound bag (107 kilograms total) would pay about 227 tala ($100) to fly from Faleolo in Samoa to Pago Pago in the U.S. territory of American Samoa, according to a calculator on the airline’s website. Per-kilo fees vary by flight and duration, Langton said.

Airlines for America, which represents the interests of large carriers such as United Continental Holdings Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc., isn’t aware of any U.S. operator adopting such a pricing policy, said Jean Medina, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based association.

‘Competitive Marketplace’

“We believe individual airlines, like other companies in a competitive marketplace, should be free to price and sell their products as they choose according to the market and their own policies,” Medina said.

For Samoa Air, charging passengers was only an evolutionary step. With a pair of twin-engine Britten-Norman BN2A Islanders and a single-engine Cessna 172, the airline already had to weigh fliers and baggage before takeoff to stay within the planes’ payload limits, Langton said.

While common for cargo carriers, charging by weight is a “unique operational consideration” for Samoa Air, said Bob Mann, president of consultant R.W. Mann & Co. in Port Washington, New York, and a former American Airlines executive.

It would be a “politically charged issue” for bigger airlines to attempt, he said. Ryanair Holdings Plc drew criticism last year when it encouraged crew members to watch their weight to save on fuel, and in 2009 the carrier polled passengers on whether obese people should have to pay more.

“Everybody that’s heavier than average would scream bloody murder,” Mann said. “Everybody that’s lighter than average who thinks they’re going to get a deal will scream to have it implemented.”

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