Is fare by weight fair?

The price of being … bigger.



Is it fair to charge airline passengers based in part on weight? That’s the plan recently announced by Samoa Air, and it’s raised a few eyebrows.

Yes, it’s an ethical issue. But no, there’s no clear answer.

Interestingly, the mainstream media stories I’ve read about this thus far have made little mention of the obvious moral worry, namely discrimination. On the face of it, charging by weight looks like systemic discrimination against overweight and obese flyers. You and I could be in adjacent seats, booked seconds apart, but if you happen to be 20 pounds chubbier than me, you’ll pay more.

Whether being fat is sufficiently under personal control to make it a permissible basis for discrimination is hotly debated. But it’s worth noting that a weight-based policy also discriminates against those whose extra pounds are pure muscle. A heavyweight boxing champ would be about fifty pounds heavier than me, and would therefore pay more. The same goes for someone with the same build as me, who happens to be 4 inches taller. So if this is discrimination, it’s discrimination against those who are heavy, not those who are fat.

The other factor going unmentioned is the environment. In aviation terms, weight translates into fuel, and more fuel burned means a greater environmental impact. So in charging by weight, an airline is basically levying a kind of carbon tax. And while how much you weigh isn’t fully within your control, the amount of luggage you bring with you is, and Samoa Air charges based on the passenger’s total weight plus luggage. Charging more on that total encourages people to carry less, and in principle might nudge frequent flyers, at least, to lose a few pounds. Such reductions eventually mean reductions in carbon emissions, and that’s a good thing. So even if there is a problematic form of discrimination going on here, there’s at least one factor on the other side of the moral equation.

Finally, it’s worth noting that to the extent that we’re worried about discrimination against bigger people (regardless of why they are big), being charged extra for their weight is far from the only price bigger people pay. Sufficiently large people also “pay,” for example, in the form of discomfort suffered in squeezing into airline seats not designed for people their size. That’s just one of the innumerable ways in which people who are outside the norm suffer in a world of products and services that are mass produced. But then, if the unusually large person pays a price for being squeezed into a seat designed for smaller folk, the person next to them pays a part of that price, too.

Of course, Samoa Air is a tiny airline, based in a tiny country. And commentators suggest that the company’s example is unlikely to be copied by major airlines. Indeed, it’s probably next to impossible: Samoa Air not only charges more to heavier passengers, it gives them more space—something likely impossible on typically-configured passenger jets. But it is precisely for this reason that Samoa Air makes for a good case to use in ethics training and education. Before coming down on one side or the other, it’s important to tease out not just that there’s an ethical issue at all, but that there are in fact a range of ethical questions here.

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