Beyond Fat-Shaming: Why This Airline's Pay-by-Weight Scheme Wouldn't Work

When the obscure airline Samoa Air announced on Tuesday that it would begin charging passengers by how much they weighed, you had to wonder: Would such a practice ever catch on at, say, American Airlines? Could it? Think not of the emotions. Think of the logistics.

This article is from the archive of our partner .

When the obscure airline Samoa Air announced on Tuesday morning that it would begin charging passengers by how much they weighed, you had to wonder: Would such a practice ever catch on at, say, American Airlines? Could it? Samoa Air, which serves the tiny South Pacific territory of American Samoa, certainly seems to think so. An official for the airline told the Australia-based ABC News, "There is no doubt in my mind that this is the concept of the future because anybody who travels has travelled at times when they feel like they have been paying for half of the passenger next to them." On one hand, the vision this official presents is presented as "fair," in the way it's "fair" for adult clothing to cost more than children's clothing. The more resources you use — in this case, jet fuel — the more you should pay. Or so goes the airline's thinking.

On the other hand, the comments recall a string of controversies, many of them involving the thrifty Southwest Airlines, during which overweight passengers (in one case, the actor/director Kevin Smith) were either kicked off or forced to pay more for their flight. Those incidents, we can agree, were pretty indecent, in that passengers were singled out for being overweight — i.e., fat-shaming. Here, so Samoa Air's thinking goes, everyone's weight will be scrutinized. Shame will be distributed among passengers of every size and shape.

Which brings us to the first question of Samoa Air's new policy: How, exactly, does this work? Well, when you go to book a flight on the airline's website, you simply submit your weight (in which unit, it's unclear), right next to where you submit the weight of your luggage:

And once you arrive at the airport, having prepaid for your flight based on your submitted weight, a Samoa Air official actually weighs you, to ensure that you didn't lie about your weight. "With Samoa Air, you are the master of how much (or little!) you air ticket will cost," the airline's policy reads. Because Samoa Air is so small — they only have a handful of flights per day, and they use small planes — this policy probably doesn't add that much time to their boarding procedure. But how would the same policy work in larger airports, where thousands of passengers fly in and out each day? In other words, how would America — a much bigger country — deal with weighing passengers?

First, a necessary aside: Air travel is already a pretty humiliating experience even without the potential of being weighed. To board a commercial jet, you have to submit to an arbitrary screening process in which you are either scanned for metal objects or directed to walk through a backscatter X-ray device, which is capable of rendering a fairly accurate representation of your naked body. (Even if it's getting goofier.) If you don't want to do that, you get patted down by a gloved TSA employee. (So do wheelchair-bound kids.) Stories of awkward and invasive screenings are legion. (All this and they're allowing knives again.)

Being weighed, however, adds an entirely different element. Remember, most tickets are purchased in advance, so — unless we're talking about submitting medical records, or some other sort of process usually reserved for all those svelte folks in the pre-screened line — you'd have to submit your weight without any proof, if the airline you're purchasing tickets from somehow decided to adopt the Samoa Air policy. Would ticket agents weigh people, like they weigh luggage? (Perhaps using the same scale?) This isn't impossible, but it seems like an unwise logistical decision. What if the passenger contests his or her weight — and thus the price increase attached to it? (You can ship a piece of luggage, but it's much more difficult to reroute an unhappy passenger at the last minute.) And then there's the potential of a legal challenge. It's not technically illegal for businesses to discriminate between customers based on weight if doing so pertains to a legitimate business decision. Still, the policy would certainly make any airline vulnerable to legal action. Indeed, a former Southwest Airlines customer is suing the company for requiring her to purchase a second seat due to her body's shape and size.

Multiply such an incident by hundreds of passengers, each of whom probably doesn't enjoy being weighed in public, and what is apparently "the concept of the future" begins to feel like, well... a marketing stunt for a little-known airline that, before today, nobody was talking about.

So no, this policy isn't quite fat-shaming, insofar as it shames everyone into disclosing their weight. More important, it's pretty unlikely to catch on here.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.