By Hannah Sampson
Air travellers are used to indignities – long security lines, minimal legroom, crowded overhead bag storage, unruly fellow passengers.
So it seemed a bridge too far when headlines started to suggest a new ordeal could be on the way: “Airlines could start weighing passengers before boarding,” the New York Post said.
The notion, which was widely circulated on travel sites and blogs last month, was grounded in some reality. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had put out an advisory circular two years earlier that “stressed the importance that airline weight and balance programs accurately reflect current passenger weights,” the agency said in a statement.
The deadline for that updated accurate reflection was June 12.
That means carriers needed to update the estimates they used for how much passengers and their luggage weighed, given the reality that, on average, Americans have gotten heavier. The FAA said one way to do that was by putting each traveller on a scale before boarding or asking passengers their weight (and estimating the reality if someone was suspected of fibbing).
Airlines could also use average weights of passengers based on government health surveys. Not surprisingly, they are opting for the latter.
Thomas Anthony, director of the University of Southern California's Aviation Safety and Security Program, said weighing passengers would be “arduous, difficult” and impractical.
“We want people to move through the terminal with the least amount of, let's say, disruption and nuisance,” he said.
Most large US carriers had little to say about the updated weight estimates, though those that responded to the question from The Washington Post said they would not be weighing passengers. The FAA said in a statement on Wednesday that it was reviewing airlines' submissions.
Only American Airlines, which had its plan approved and started using updated averages on June 8, would talk numbers. The carrier said its estimates now say the average body weight for passengers is 182 pounds (about 82.5kg) in summer and 187 pounds in winter, which is eight pounds heavier than previous estimates.
Carry-on bags will count as five pounds heavier, and checked bags will gain four pounds in the estimates, American Airlines spokesperson Sarah Jantz said in an email.
Airlines say they don't expect the updated estimates to change anything meaningful – or anything at all – about the travel experience. Delta said its plan would “minimize any potential impact to our customers”.
Alaska Airlines said any impact would be “negligible and would only affect select long-haul routes during headwind conditions”.
JetBlue spokesperson Derek Dombrowski said in a statement this week that the airline had submitted its updated data to the FAA and would continue to work with the agency to finalise its plan.
“We do not anticipate any impact to our customers' experience as a result of these required weight revisions, and at this time we have no imminent changes to report regarding adjustments to our baggage policies,” Dombrowski said.
Meanwhile Anthony, who teaches about aviation safety, said it was important for airlines to work with the most accurate information about how much weight a plane is carrying although the updated weight estimates should be “invisible to the average passenger”.
“For all critical stages of flight, you want to have an accurate estimation of the weight and balance of the aircraft,” he said.