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A tax on overweight airline passengers: a brutal airline policy

April 03, 2013|By Robin Abcarian

When teensy-weensy Samoa Airlines debuted its pay-by-the-kilo policy in January, I doubt it expected to set off an international controversy about fat discrimination.

But that’s what happened when news seeped out this week after the airline’s chief executive, Chris Langton, told ABC News radio in Australia that the system is not only fair but destined to catch on.

“Doesn’t matter whether you’re carrying freight or people,” explained Langton. "We’ve amalgamated the two and worked out a figure per kilo.”

Samoa Air, he added, has always weighed the human and non-human cargo it carries. “As any airline operator knows, they don’t run on seats, they run on weight,” said Langton. “There’s no doubt in my mind this is the concept of the future because anybody who travels has felt they’ve paid for half the passenger that’s sitting next to them.”

I don’t know the answer to this  vexing question for airlines and passengers. We’ve all been squished by large seatmates at one time or another, and sometimes we’re the ones doing the squishing. I guess it’s just some kind of crazy Karl Marx thinking to suggest that airlines make their coach seats a little wider.

As Langton himself said, “People are generally a little big bigger, a bit wider and taller than they were 40 to 50 years ago.” How have airlines responded? By shrinking seats, of course.

Samoa Air should win an award for the disingenuous way it’s trying to sell the policy as a way of empowering customers:

“Samoa Air, Introducing a world first: 'Pay only for what you weigh'! We at Samoa Air are keeping airfares fair, by charging our passengers only for what they weigh. You are the master of your Air'fair', you decide how much (or little) your ticket will cost. No more exorbitant excess baggage fees, or being charged for baggage you may not carry. Your weight plus your baggage items, is what you pay for. Simple. The Sky's the Limit!”

More like the scale’s the limit.

“Booking a flight with us is as easy as inputting your approximate weight into our online booking engine (don't worry, we will weigh you again at the airport)… Take as many or as few bags as you wish - and avoid the exorbitant excess baggage fees! With Samoa Air, you are the master of how much (or little!) your air ticket will cost.”

I guarantee you that anyone who says “Don’t worry” when they’re talking about weighing me at an airport will never get my business. Not at my current weight, anyway.

One bright note to this policy: Families with small children, who often feel persecuted when they travel, stand to benefit most from this policy. Since Samoa no longer charges by the seat, it will cost them a lot less to fly than it did before.

Predictably,  the news about Samoa Air, which flies in only a fraction of the world (Samoa, American Samoa, French Polynesia), has received outsized attention.

Many took offense at Langton’s suggestion that he’s doing fat folks a favor. “People are generally becoming weight conscious and it’s a health issue in some areas as well,” Langton told ABC News. “It’s just raised the issue of weight and particularly how important it is when you travel.”

A columnist in the Guardian used the occasion to delve into the issue of “concern bullying.”

“The bullying is for the victim’s own good,” wrote the columnist, Ally Fogg. “Obesity is a health issue, they declare, and if only you understood how disgusting you are then you might do something about it…. Concern bullying is rarely about encouraging the victim to live a healthier life, and invariably about taking a sadistic thrill in making oneself feel superior through making someone else feel worse.”

I don’t think that’s quite what’s going on with Samoa Airlines. The chief executive is trying to put an altruistic gloss on a pretty brutal new policy.

Twitter: @robinabcarian

Email: robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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