Monday, April 8, 2013

The Right to Fly Cheaply

There is a bit of a revolution brewing in airline fares.  Samoa airlines is changing their fare structure to charge based on the weight of the passenger.  Presumably there will be some kind of base fee + constant*(weight in kilos) but the actual structure isn't the important thing; dealing with the public relations mess is the hard part.  Of course there are lots of small people and people who take minimal baggage who are cheering at the prospect of reduced fares but there will be plenty of folks who are completely against a public weigh in at the ticket counter in the airport.  This does make economic sense because heavier people and luggage are actually a very big factor in airline fuel costs.

The arguments that are being tossed around over this are interesting.  Note that I don't have any particular stake in this since I am of average weight and carry an average amount of luggage - it shouldn't matter much to me even if Canadian airlines start doing this.  However, there are a lot of people arguing that this is discrimination because it forces people with the 'wrong' genes to pay more.  There are even folks crying about sexism against men because women are on average lighter and thus pay less.  Both of those claims are obviously bogus because nobody cries discrimination when large people have to pay more for larger clothes, larger cars, or stronger beds.  If you are large and you want companies to do more to accommodate that you pay for it.

One argument that holds a little more merit is the issue of people requiring special equipment to move about.  A walker or a wheelchair isn't optional for many people and they could be really unhappy about paying extra to have one.  In the end though I still side with the airline on this:  They have to pay for the fuel and the space to cart the extra gear around so charging to do so makes sense.  Homebuilders don't install elevators for free, moving companies charge to move specialized furniture, and wheelchairs themselves cost money.  Airlines clearly have an obligation to provide service to people with physical challenges but paying the same rate for gear isn't an unfair hardship.

I figure that this will end up something like cell phone packages - lots of different companies offering different plans.  Heavy people will be incentivized to fly with flat rate carriers and light people with 'by weight' carriers and it will even out in the long run.  It seems like exactly the sort of situation unregulated economics will sort out efficiently in the long run; predicting exactly how that arrangement will work is however quite beyond us.


  1. I can't see how this can ever be anything but an idiotic idea. Are we all going to go to the airport not knowing how much our ticket is going to cost? In that case they'd better give us a formula in advance that we can use to estimate it and understand how it will change if we put on or lose a few pounds before our trip. But then they will have to publish lots of formulae for different times of day and different seasons. They'll need to add one minute to everyone's check-in time at the airport, but of course for some people it will be 20 minutes, and people will argue with their scales and claim they are being ripped off.

    And all of this makes the carrier precisely $0. Since the average weight of the load of passengers in the plane doesn't change, the total amount paid for each flight doesn't change. So it would mean buying equipment, inventing new ticketing systems, training employees, dealing with bad publicity (particularly around people with disabilities), and all to move money out of the hands of larger people into the hands of smaller people.

    Since airlines don't really have an incentive to spend their own money to become a weight-based-robin-hood, this idea is one of two things: phenomenally stupid or a PR move to obfuscate raising the price of tickets by bringing in a new, complex system that can't easily be compare to old prices.

  2. It would certainly generate pushback initially by some people and I agree that it would be a PR mess. I don't know that it will ever happen because of this; even if eventually became normal it would be a big challenge to get from here to there. Still, if fuel costs rise substantially and weight ends up being a very critical factor there will be a lot more pressure to do this I think. The first carrier that does so gets to fly all the small people around and save a ton on fuel and the others will have to spend more for the bigger folks. That might be enough for somebody to try it.

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  4. Okay, I made an obvious stupid post with bad math to show it wasn't worth pursuing when in reality it would vary ticket prices by about 12% - which still probably isn't worth pursuing, but there you go.

    Anyway assuming that the airline does not increase prices at the same time they charge for weight, how do they save money by flying the smaller people around? Those people pay less. In that case they save nothing, it's just that their competitors spend a little more until they adopt the same policy, but in the mean time they had to install those scales and change how tickets are purchased, and that cost them money too. And everyone can books flights in advance and know their price on those flights in advance with any competitor, so completely ignoring the PR issue: why would anyone book with the price-lottery airline instead of the we-tell-you-what-you'll-pay airline? If the pricing policy causes one or two empty seats on your plane then it's badly self defeating, even if it was a positive to being with.

  5. I would book on the price-lottery airline. Assuming the flight is actually populated by mostly smaller people it would make sitting beside someone else into a more bearable proposition. I'd actually be willing to pay a fair bit more to pull that off, and I guess I probably would since I'm no longer small myself.

  6. Of course, you know who would book flights on the airline where you pay less for lighter people? People with 3-year-olds.

    But anyway, the point is that this policy would never actually get the airline any money. If you fly thousands of people around per day then charging cost-of-flight + profit to each person vs. average-cost-of-flight + profit to each person will always get you the same amount of money.