Now that most COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, people have started travelling again. The robust return to travel brings with it reminders of the many airline rules and regulations that impact the safe and efficient movement of passengers and cargo.
The Travel Security Association’s (TSA) liquid restrictions remain unchanged. You’ll need to get out those little 3.4 ounces bottles that you tucked away in the bottom of your suitcase. And airlines continue to impose weight limits and dimensions on our luggage, too. Yet they don’t weigh us. Why is this?
I thought I would easily find a chart of specific passenger weight limits based on the physics of gravity and thrust needed to get an airplane off the tarmac, keep it in the sky and land it safely. I discovered though that currently, there isn’t any federal regulation with exact passenger weight limits on an aircraft.
However, what I did find was a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Advisory Circular from May, 2019, which is the closest thing that carries the authority of a regulation. It stressed the importance that airline protocols accurately reflect revised "average passenger weights", and even included an option of weighing passengers at the gate. FAA standard for the average adult passenger and carry-on bag weight to 190 pounds in the summer and 195 pounds in the winter.
This FAA advisory demonstrated the need to tweak its standards to reflect more accurately the changes to the average weight of Americans over the last several decades, considering the nation’s widening waistlines. These changes were a result of the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2008 National Health Statistics Report which determined that the mean average weight is now 194.7 pounds for male adults over age 20 and 164.7 pounds for women over the age of 20. Mean average weighs inched up even further between 2015 - 2018 to 199.8 for men and 170.8 for women.
I learned that most of an aircraft’s weight is fuel. But that weight is a given. Passenger weight (and luggage), on the other hand, is variable. How might passenger weight impact the world of commercial aviation?
Samoa Air, a small island-hopping airline, might provide some insight. It’s the world’s first air carrier to charge passengers by their weight and that of their luggage rather than per seat. American Samoa has one of the highest obesity rates in the world. In the early 2000s, the adult overweight and obesity rate in the territory was nearly universal, at 93 percent, while the rate for children was close to 45 percent. Samoa Air defends its plan as the fairest way to fly in some cases actually ending up cheaper than conventional tickets.
It has begun charging passengers by weight. Passengers pay a fixed price per kilogram (2.2 pounds) which varies depending on the route length. The cost is .93 cents to $1.06 per kilogram (2.2 pounds).
It seems that for now Samoa Air will continue to be an aviation outlier. Presently, the only other air carriers that actually weigh individual passengers on each flight are the ones operating extremely small aircraft and helicopters which has always been the case.
Deceasing airline profitability, skyrocketing fuel costs with increased safety concerns could perhaps one day push the concept of at gate weigh-ins in the future. For now, I suspect weighed averages will prevail since I don’t think passengers will be agreeable to be subjected to yet another indignity at the airport.
So are you ready to jump on the scale?
Smith, Patrick. Cockpit confidential : everything you need to know about air travel : questions, answers & reflections. Sourcebooks, 2018.
Veken, Jan van der. Planes : from the Wright Brothers to the supersonic jet. London, New York, Prestel Publishing, 2020 .
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Curiosity Corner writer & contributor:
Helen Beckert, Reference Librarian at the Glen Ridge Public Library