THIS WEEK IN FAT STIGMA: Samoa Air’s New Pay-By-The-Pound Airfare Policy Is A Real Thing, Yes

What's the difference between ME and a giant sack of donuts representing my equivalent weight? Not much, it turns out.
Publish date:
April 4, 2013
money, body politics, flying while fat, air travel

A few months ago, small island-hopping airline Samoa Air instituted a new policy in which passengers pay by the pound -- the combined weight of their bodies and their baggage. The company’s head explained their thinking in a recent comment to CNN:

"The next step is for the industry to make those sort of changes... What makes airplanes work is weight. We are not selling seats, we are selling weight.""People deserve to be able to travel in comfort, and the industry has been trying to fit all the square pegs into round holes and hasn't been taking into account that for a lot of people, traveling by air is an uncomfortable experience," he said. [...]"Either way both people are being disadvantaged. The larger person is not getting the credit of being large and being catered to because the fare is considered to be equal based on seats but we know it is not. It is always based on weight."

It makes sense, from a cold-logic perspective. Samoa Air’s explanation certainly avoids making it sound like bigger folks should be punished for their size. And yes, the main factor in air travel is weight, whether the weight is person- or bag-shaped.

But it doesn’t make sense from a human perspective. The Samoa Air website describes the new policy:

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 master of your “airfair.” Cute. It’s a neat concept, but is it really true?

Maybe it could be, if everyone, everywhere, had the most minute control over their weight. Or if we could assume a universally applicable cross-cultural truth that smaller is always better, that everyone has the same ability to be as small as they choose, and that fat people are fat exclusively as a result of pure stubbornness (because, ostensibly, being fat comes with all kinds of great perks like a robot rocket car and a real live glitter-shitting pony and the respect and admiration of friends, family and strangers everywhere).

Although, even it that WAS true, I still think it’s kind of gross to punish people for making private choices regarding what they do with their own bodies, so long as those choices don’t include using said body to hurt someone else.

The obvious gap in Samoa Air’s otherwise tidy reasoning is that not everyone has achieved personal mastery of their weight, for lots of possible reasons both within and beyond their control. This sort of undercuts the idea of it being “fair.” The policy effectively penalizes -- even if Samoa Air doesn’t like to think of it this way, it is indeed a penalty -- not only great big fat people, but also tall people, and even many disabled people. Not to mention people who qualify as more than one of the above.

Speaking as a fat person who flies a lot, I might hypothetically be willing to pay more for more space but that’s because I HAVE THAT OPTION. Not everyone does. And levying an additional “fat tax” on a group of people already statistically likely to make far less money than their thinner peers seems like insult to injury.

(As an aside, while Samoa Air hints around at making larger passengers more “comfortable,” what this actually means is left unspecified -- fluffy pillows? Compliments? A seat next to a smaller person or a child so the size discrepancy works out? I'm sure THAT would go over well, as people are not naturally territorial about airplane seat space at ALL, and everybody loves being reduced to a game of human Tetris. I once had a woman literally growl at me over my encroachment on the armrest. No kidding.)

But Lesley, I hear you protest, isn't this reasonable? The people who comprise more of the plane's weight should pay for that difference? Nope. It's not reasonable because it only penalizes larger people, and rewards smaller folk. A tiny person who pays one-third of the airfare doesn't get limited to the use of only half of their seat; that would be outrageous. They pay for an arbitrarily-sized seat, they get access to the whole seat, even if they don't "need" it all.

I would argue, and this might be a radical notion, that anyone who flies should have access to as much space as necessary for them to fit on the plane, if not in comfort, then at least not in unbearable discomfort (and for some? airplane seats as they currently exist are actually painful -- this can be particular true for disabled folks).

Flying should not be cost-prohibitive for certain people simply because of the size of their bodies. Because as proves true every time we talk about the issue of fat people on planes or other public-serving transportation methods, not everyone flies exclusively to jet off to some fabulous vacation -- sometimes people fly to have surgery or to assist an ailing family member, or because their current job requires it or to interview for a new job, or to attend a funeral or a birth.

And even if they ARE off on a purely recreational fabulous vacation? Fat people deserve that too. Flying is not a rare privilege to be earned; it is a necessary aspect of life for many people.

And all of this isn't even TOUCHING the weirdest aspect, which is that for this system to work, everyone has to get weighed at the airport. This is not unusual for travel on small planes, as too much weight in that situation can mean a quick and jarring return to earth, but as an idea for the wider industry? I don’t know how many people would be into that.

I mean, imagine it. You would get on a scale, ostensibly with a line of fellow passengers behind you, before you got on your plane. This would be true for everyone who flies, no matter their size. So while the additional fare would only be paid by the heavier individuals, everyone gets to partake in a potentially upsetting ritual (and yes, while being weighed is no big for lots of people, it is a HUGE BIG for many, particularly anyone with a history of eating disorders), adding further misery to the already increasingly joyless experience of flying.

Samoa Air is a very small airline with a grand total of three planes, and anyone who’s had the pleasure of flying in small aircraft knows that every pound counts. So from the perspectives of physics and plain old business, this policy makes sense.

But people aren’t scientific variables. And just because something can be measured quantitatively does not mean the human factor can be eliminated as a consideration. Especially in a business like air travel, in which so many of the customers already resent the experience they’re paying for.

I tried to get into the Samoa Air website to compare prices, but the most I could do was submit a “booking request” as they cannot accept payments online at this time. I’ve yet to hear back from a representative as of this writing -- and given the slowness of the website I suspect they may be a little overwhelmed by inquiries right now -- but I’ll update if I do.

It seems unlikely that larger US air carriers would follow suit on this policy anytime soon; the public relations would undoubtedly be a nightmare. I don’t think it’s impossible that it could eventually happen, though. The truth is we currently have no viable solution for creating air travel that is both comfortable and affordable for people of a variety of sizes.

The one-size-fits-all seat model certainly doesn’t work. While some kind of modular seating that can be changed around to accomodate parents and kids, or disabled folks, or fat people or tall people, all in relative comfort, would be awesome to see, even IF airlines were interested in doing it, that would require refitting planes with new layouts at a significant cost. And because so many of us rely on air travel as a matter of necessity, a lot of people are more likely to grit their teeth and bear the unpleasantness rather than refuse to fly until reasonable accomodations are made.

I hate flying, and even though I take close to ten flights every year and should be used to it by now, I feel like I hate it even more with every experience. While I’m not expecting luxurious quarters, I do miss the days before airlines started piling people on top of each other like so much paying cattle, and when the people flying weren’t so eager to take out their discomfort and unhappiness on their fellow passengers, since they can’t take it out on the airline.

Something has to change, but I don’t think further stigmatizing fat flyers with higher fares is the right way to go about it. People fly, not pounds. We're coming perilously close to forgetting that.