Should the Presidential Candidates Care About Airline Fees?

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I'm sorry to say that the people running for president have remained silent on one of the burning issues of our time: How fat is "too fat" to fly?

Maybe they have bigger things to think about. Or, maybe since most of them fly in private chartered jets, it just hasn't hit their radar. But on some level, I bet they relate.

After all, Rick Santorum left the Iowa contest on a commercial jetliner - in a middle seat, yet - and Newt Gingrich has confessed to at least skirting the edge of what airlines call a 'passenger of size' (the former speaker was quoted back in November as saying, "I should lose weight, I just find it really hard to lose weight.").

So I'll ask them this question: where do you stand on the issue of passengers' paying-by-the-pound for airfare? Yes, this concept has been floated, and in all seriousness.

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I may have been the first to broach the topic - as a joke - in this very column nearly four years ago. That's just about the time airlines began introducing fees for a first checked-bag, and I suggested other crazy fees-of-the-future might include this one:

"Fat Fee: Charging passengers by the pound. Gate agents would have scales near the boarding area, and to be really fair about this, they would assess fees on everyone who weighs more than 100 pounds (we could call this fee the Super-Model-Exempt Surcharge)." -Rick Seaney, June 4, 2008

I also pointed out that since airlines quit serving meals in coach, passengers who lost weight on flights might even get some money back (an airline refund: now that really is crazy talk).

Now, the pay-by-the-pound idea is being raised in more serious fashion. A former executive with Australia's Qantas now says airfare by weight or as an add-on fee is not only viable but necessary. Tony Webber blames higher airfares in part on expensive jet fuel coupled with rising obesity rates because it takes more fuel to carry more weight.

Drastic situations, he said, call for drastic measures: "I think it's discriminatory that people who watch their weight actually have to pay a higher airfare because of people who are overweight."

Dr. Webber who is described as Qantas' former chief economist (a bean-counter - wouldn't you know?) may have a point. Based on numbers I've seen from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average weight of Americans from 1960 to 2002 increased by almost 30 pounds.

In response to more pound-packing passengers, many airlines introduced 'too-fat-to-fly' rules, and AirTran, soon to be taken over by Southwest, recently announced it would be adopting the latter's stringent policy. In general, state the rules, if your fat flows over and into your seatmate's space, you need to buy two seats.

I suggest being questioned at the gate about your girth is nearly as harrowing as the scary experience of those British Airways passengers earlier this month who heard a recorded announcement over the Atlantic that their plane was about to crash (it didn't - apparently someone hit the wrong button).

Poundage is a problematic topic, and yet, would we really notice much difference if we had to step on a scale (behind a curtain, please)? Think about it: air travel today already feels like a visit to the doctor, what with all that poking and prodding from the TSA. Add a blood pressure cuff and your airport physical is darn near complete.

Might as well bring height into the conversation, too, since that's another issue for a lot of passengers. While Americans were busying gaining those 30 pounds over the past few decades, we added half an inch in height. And tall flyers have troubles, too.

Take the case of Malcolm Johnson, the 6'7" man from Edmonton, Alberta. He launched a campaign against Air Canada for hoarding its bigger seats - the ones with extra legroom - for passengers willing to pay an extra fee for them. Today many airlines charge for these roomier options; it's just another way to make a buck.

Which means, 'too tall' flyers are left jamming their knees against the tray tables and muttering over recent news stories such as Southwest's decision to shrink its seat pitch (well, they mutter when they're not too busy defending their hindquarter space from 'passengers of size').

I'm sure our presidential contenders can feel the height pain since they're a tall group: Mitt Romney stands 6'2" while President Obama is just an inch behind and Newt Gingrich is another six-footer. But again, this only seems to be a burning issue among us non-contenders. I think I know why.

There's plenty of room to spread out on Air Force One. Free food, too. And no TSA.

Related links:

Santorum flies commercial

Newt Gingrich's Weight: Elephant in the Room

Latest Airline Fee: Pay Toilets?

Former Qantas Exec. Pushes for Fat Tax

Center for Disease Control Weight Statistics

Too Fat to Fly Rules Affect NBA Players

British Airways' Fake-out Crash Announcement

Flier Too Tall

Southwest Shrinks Seat Pitch

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website,, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.