Economist Says 'Fat Tax' Can Benefit Airlines, Passengers

PHOTO: In 2012, former chief economist at Qantas Group floated the idea that heavy people should pay more to fly.

Should overweight passengers pay more for their flights than skinny fliers? One Norwegian economist thinks so.

In an article in this month's Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management, Bharat P. Bhatta writes that "All passengers are not alike in terms of their weight and the space they take in a plane." Weight and space, he said, are the major concerns on board an aircraft."

Any flier that's been squeezed into the middle seat between two passengers of size knows it's unfair to have to share a seat they paid for with the person next to them. But while some airlines, like Southwest, have a policy that requires "passengers of size" who "encroach upon any part of the neighboring seat" to purchase extra seats as needed, these policies are often arbitrarily enforced and the airlines who try to enforce them tend to suffer backlash from the public.

In 2012, "too fat to fly" passenger Kenlie Tiggeman sued Southwest for "discriminatory actions ... toward obese customers." And in 2012, actor-director Kevin Smith made headlines when he lashed out at Southwest on Twitter for being removed from a plane for being, in the airline's opinion, too large for his seat.

"As a result, the low- and average-weight passengers have to pay for the heavier passengers' excess weight," said Bhatta. "In return, lighter passengers are squeezed by heavier passengers because the latter take some space from their seats."

Different fares for different-sized people could theoretically benefit thin fliers. But could charging heavier passengers more for their tickets also help the airlines become more profitable? After all, the cost of shipping an item depends largely on the weight or size of the piece.

Bhatta points out the airlines have been barely eking out a profit for years and already charge passengers more based on the weight of the bags they check. He writes, "As a solution to combat high fuel prices and to improve the financial condition of airlines, some observers suggest a fare according to passengers' total weight including their body weight."

"The weight-based fare," he writes, "can give passengers an incentive to lose weight so that they can pay a reduced fare."

This isn't the first time this idea of a so-called "fat tax" has been floated.

In 2012, the former chief economist at Qantas Group floated the idea that heavy people should pay more to fly. And the "pay what you weigh" theory was the pricing model behind a fictional 2008 advertising campaign for an airline called "Derrie-Air." The slogan? The more you weigh, the more you pay.

But as Bhatta points out, "the fare policy that charges heavier passengers higher fares but does not give any discount to lighter ones can benefit only the airlines but harm the passenger and the society at large."

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