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Heavier Customers Boost Planes' Fuel Costs

November 05, 2004|From Associated Press

ATLANTA — Heavy suitcases aren't the only things weighing down airplanes and requiring them to burn more fuel, pushing up the cost of flights. A new government study reveals that airlines increasingly have to worry more about the weight of their passengers.

America's growing waistlines are hurting the bottom lines of airline companies as the extra pounds on passengers are causing a drag on planes. Heavier fliers have created heftier fuel costs, according to the government study.

Through the 1990s, the average weight of Americans increased by 10 pounds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The extra weight caused airlines to spend $275 million to burn 350 million more gallons of fuel in 2000, the federal agency estimated in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

"The obesity epidemic has unexpected consequences beyond direct health effects," said Dr. Deron Burton of the CDC. "Our goal was to highlight one area that had not been looked at before."

The extra fuel burned also had an environmental effect, as an estimated 3.8 million extra tons of carbon dioxide were released into the air, according to the study.

The agency said its calculations were rough estimates, issued to highlight previously undocumented consequences of the obesity epidemic.

The estimates were calculated by determining how much fuel the 10 extra pounds of weight per passenger represented in Department of Transportation airline statistics, Burton said.

In 2000 obesity was the underlying cause of 400,000 deaths in the U.S., a 33% jump from 1990. If current trends persist, it will become the nation's No. 1 cause of preventable death, the CDC said.

Fifty-six percent of U.S. adults were overweight or obese in the early 1990s, according to a CDC survey. That rose to 65% in a similar survey done from 1999 to 2002.

Although the Air Transport Assn. of America has not yet validated the CDC data, spokesman Jack Evans said the health agency's appraisal "does not sound out of the realm of reality."

With most airlines reporting losses blamed partly on record-high fuel costs, everything on an airplane is now a weighty issue. Airlines are doing everything they can to lighten the load on all aircraft.

Bulky magazines have gone out the door. Metal forks and spoons have been replaced with plastic. Large carry-ons are being scrutinized and even heavy materials that used to make up airplane seats are being replaced with plastic and other lightweight materials.

"We're dealing in a world of small numbers -- even though it has a very incremental impact" to reduce a 60- to 120-ton aircraft's weight by bumping off a few magazines, Evans said. "When you consider airlines are flying millions of miles, it adds up over time."

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