Charging The Obese For Their Extra Pounds

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A tiny Samoan airline has apparently begun charging fares based on a passenger's weight, reports Patrick Smith in a provocative post on his "Ask The Pilot" blog today.

Smith explains why the practice makes sense for the Samoans (and why it's extremely unlikely that any major airlines will follow suit). But his piece also underscores an inexorable trend: forcing the overweight and obese pay for their extra pounds.

He writes:

obese kid

...Americans are quite a bit larger than they used to be, and doesn't that extra weight affect an airplane's performance? Is it just a matter of time before passengers on United, Delta or American are asked to stand on a scale, like their suitcases, when checking in?

Well, no. It makes sense if, like Samoa Air, you're a company operating light, ten-seat aircraft in a region with extremely high rates of obesity, but not if you're a major carrier with a fleet of Boeings or Airbuses. There are some touchy social and civil liberty aspects that probably make the idea controversial, if not untenable, but let's take a look at the practical side:

To begin with, passengers account for surprisingly small percentage of a plane's overall weight. As a general rule, the larger the plane, the less of a factor it is. That sounds counterintuitive, but consider the example of a Boeing 747">Boeing 747. A 747 typically seats around 420 people, and its maximum allowable takeoff weight is 875,000 pounds. Four hundred and twenty people * and * their carry-on luggage weigh in at just under 80,000 pounds. That's less than ten percent — ten percent! — of the plane's maximum heft. Most of what it weighs comes from the mass of the jet itself, plus the fuel load, which runs into the hundreds of thousands of pounds.

So while it appears that obese people are, for now, paying the same fares as everyone else, they are paying more in other realms.

It's not just obscure airlines.

WBUR's On Point ran a segment today on the growing practice of big employers charging overweight and obese workers more to pay for their health insurance. "As health care and insurance costs rise, employers increasingly want to know your weight, your blood pressure, your glucose and cholesterol levels. Six in ten, according to one survey,

say they plan to impose penalties on employees who don’t take action to improve their health. Does this sound fair? Inevitable? Wrong? Is this the way to health? To discrimination?"

This movement is not going away soon. Earlier this year, I wrote about a Mass. internist who no longer accepts new patients who are obese. Carey wrote about the ins and outs of workplace wellness programs — what they can and can't do. It's worth rereading if you're wondering how far this all may go.

This program aired on April 9, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Health Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for Bostonomix.