The Travel Insider has just released the results of its updated Weight Based Fare survey.
Earlier, in June 2008, a survey of Travel Insider readers showed little or no support for the concept of charging passengers for their air travels based on their weight.
Back then, 59% of readers strongly opposed the concept and another 6% were moderately opposed, compared to only 15% each strongly supporting and moderately supporting. 5% of readers said they were neutral, and didn’t mind one way or the other.
The survey was repeated last week, and this time, almost equal numbers of readers supported weight based fares as opposed them. 21% of readers now strongly support weight based fares, and another 23% of readers moderately support the concept, compared to 36% strongly opposed and 7% moderately opposed. The number of readers with no clear view on the matter more than doubled, with 12% of readers (up from 5% in 2008) now having an open mind on the issue.
Readers were asked to categorize themselves as being of less than average weight, average weight, or more than average weight. No guidance was given as to what constituted these three categories, but by self-categorizing, readers were also indicating if they thought they would be positively or negatively affected by a shift to weight based fares.
Readers were then asked to indicate on a five level scale their opinion on airlines charging weight based fares, with the five responses being ‘strongly support’, ‘mildly support’, ‘have no strong opinion either way’, ‘mildly oppose’ and ‘strongly oppose’.
Interestingly, in both surveys, readers split themselves almost identically into weight groupings. 13% of readers in both surveys considered themselves to be of less than average weight; average weight had 59% in 2013 and 58% in 2008, and more than average weight comprised 28% in 2013, and 30% in 2008. This makes it easier to compare responses in the two surveys without having to ponder the implications of a different split of weight groupings, and also provides somewhat of a consistency check between the two surveys.
All three weight groupings registered increased levels of support for weight based fares in 2013.
The first chart shows total responses for all weight category respondents, and superimposes the new 2013 results on top of the previous 2008 results.
The second chart compares 2008 and 2013 responses from passengers considering themselves to be of less than average weight.
This next chart shows the 2008 and 2013 responses for passengers who feel they are of average weight.
Lastly, a smaller shift in opinion for passengers of more than average weight.
This survey result shows a major shift in air traveler opinions – and Travel Insider readers are among the most frequent of frequent fliers, with 99.7% of readers flying at least once a year, 90% fly four or more times a year, and half fly ten times or more. Unsurprisingly, 63% of readers are elite level frequent flier members.
Five years ago, two-thirds of passengers were opposed to weight based fares, and even passengers who stood to benefit from the concept (those rating themselves as weighing less than average) joined in their opposition to the concept.
But now more than half of passengers either support weight based fares or don’t care one way or the other. The 65% who were opposed in 2008 has shrunk to 43%.
Perhaps part of this change is the increased awareness and impact of airline baggage fees, which many travelers may consider to be unfair when viewed in the context of ‘Why should a 250 lb person with a 49 lb suitcase pay less to travel than a 125 lb person with a 51 lb suitcase’. As the airlines increasingly focus on – and aggressively penalize – the weight of suitcases, passengers realize that it costs the airline the same amount of money per pound to transport either people or their bags, and look for a more even-handed total approach to their air travel costs.
Even those passengers who anticipate paying more for a weight based fare are becoming more open to the concept, although whether this is from a negative sense of fatalism and inevitability, or a positive willingness to pay ‘their fair share’ is unclear.
Who is Subsidizing Who?
A couple of readers expressed concern that a weight based approach to air fares would further demonize ‘people of substance’, and fairly pointed out that it is not only the serial super-sized McDonalds gluttons who weigh more than average. Others worried that if airlines would start charging more for weight, then next they’d start charging more for height as well.
We find the latter concern easier to respond to. It is as likely that airlines would charge extra for tall people as they would for red-headed people or any other arbitrary distinction. The only case in which this would make sense would be if one’s seat pitch varied according to one’s leg length, and there’s sadly no way that is going to happen. So a weight based approach to fares does not open the door to all sorts of other discriminatory fares.
As for ‘people of substance’, the key issue surely is if they are using undue resources or not. Being as how they are not given extra seat space (which is as much to their annoyance, at least as much as it may be to the annoyance of people around them), the only major resource they are consuming in greater amount is jet fuel.
An airplane burns approximately 3% of the weight of anything being flown per hour of flight. So a 250 lb person would represent a fuel burn of 7.5lbs/fuel an hour (almost exactly one gallon of jet fuel). And, of course, a 125 lb person would be consuming half that.
So, for every two hours of flight the 250lb person uses up one gallon more jet fuel than the 125 lb person. That’s maybe a $3 extra cost.
This trivial difference in underlying cost is one of the reasons the airlines have not apparently been considering passenger weight based fares to date. But there are two special case situations to consider.
The first is a flight that is weight limited. This might be a long-range flight – eg a 747 flying from Los Angeles to Melbourne. In that case, where the plane can not fly with a full load of passengers and a typical load of accompanying baggage, the extra ‘cost’ to the airline of the 250lb person is in the form of the airline having to choose between transporting one 250lb passenger or two 125lb passengers on the journey. The difference in ticket revenue to the airline in such a case could be $1000 or more.
This can also occur on a short-range flight in a small regional jet or turbo-prop ‘puddle jumper’, where the airline again has to limit the number of passengers and bags on the flight. The problem in such cases isn’t so much the extra fuel burned as the reduced revenue earned.
The other issue is one the airlines have created for themselves. As we saw above, the fuel cost to transport a 125lb weight – be it a passenger or two 63lb suitcases – is about $1.50 per flight hour. But you wouldn’t know this from the outrageous fees airlines now charge for baggage; it is possible to end up paying more than $100 per suitcase even though the actual fuel cost of transporting it may be less than $5.
This is where the current tension and perceived inequity comes from. The 125lb person does not care and never has cared that the 250lb person pays the same fare as they do. But when the 125lb person ends up paying hundreds of dollars more for themselves and their luggage than the 250lb person, while in total weighing appreciably less, then people start to feel outraged.
So – who is subsidizing who? Alas, we are all subsidizing the airlines.