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Weighty issues for air travelers

With fuel surcharges, service cuts and a host of new fees, is it far-fetched to think we'll have to start paying airlines by the pound? Yes, the Well-Mannered Traveler says, but that brings up a touchy subject.

Air travelers are disappointed, but not at all surprised anymore, to learn about the latest fare increases, fuel surcharges, service cutbacks and extra fees being imposed by airlines.

So it was natural that folks in Philadelphia were intrigued last Friday when ads appeared in two local newspapers announcing a new “carbon-neutral luxury airline” that would have low prices and lots of upscale amenities, including “gorgeous air hosts and hostesses, golden-age Rat Pack films, top-shelf vodka Martinis, on-demand video blackjack, spacious private washrooms outfitted with porcelain fixtures and gilded faucets, gourmet snacks, on-board masseuses, loofah scrubs and, of course, digital cable!”

Sounds great, doesn't it? But there’s a catch: fares on the new airline, Derrie-Air, are determined by how much you and your baggage weigh. (“Pack less. Weigh less. Pay less,” reads the slogan at the top of the airline’s Web site.)

Outraged? Delighted? Confused? Don’t worry. The whole thing is a public relations joke.

Or is it?

‘Preposterous ... impossible ...’
Derrie-Air, as the small print way down at the bottom of the “airline’s” Web site reads, is “a fictitious advertising campaign ...” And while Peggy Howell, a spokesperson from the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), found the faux airline’s approach to ticketing “sort of funny,” she thinks actually charging airfares based on weight would be “a preposterous and rather impossible proposal. Just think how much airlines would have to spend to have all those scales and extra staff on hand to weigh passengers and figure out the fares. Besides, who among us, no matter what size, would agree to be weighed in public?”

At first glance, the idea may seem silly, but as a business person, even Howell appreciates that airlines need to be creative when it comes to the bottom line. So she’s not at all shocked to learn that, while exploring every nook and cranny for ways to save money, airlines might be serious about the idea of charging passengers by their poundage.

So, would travelers be willing to step on a scale — with or without their luggage — before boarding a plane if it meant it could save them some money? Don’t bet on it. I’m as frugal as the next gal — and smaller than most — but I bet I’m not alone in not even letting my husband know how much I weigh, and I certainly don't want to let an airline ticket agent or an entire check-in line full of strangers in on this closely-guarded secret.

By-the-pound idea floated before
The idea of charging air passengers by weight is actually nothing new. More than a year ago, when we took up the issue of “seatmates of size” in a few Well-Mannered Traveler columns, readers made that suggestion over and over.

But not in a nice way. In fact, many of the comments posted on the discussion board that included that “solution” had to be deleted for profanity and just plain rudeness. But now that “Derrie-Air” and others have put the idea out there, it seems there are plenty of folks who are fine with the idea of treating passengers as freight.

Brandon Tucker, a sports writer, is one of them. While I don't care much about sports, I was intrigued by his response to a recent news report that said some airlines were seriously discussing the “pay-by-the-pound” ticketing plan. “Just when you thought airlines couldn’t get any more impersonal,” he wrote, “it turns out they really do view you like a piece of meat.”

While Tucker thinks paying $25 each way to check a second bag “is a bit excessive,” he thinks it would be fine to charge passengers by weight. “It will be another incentive for the most overweight and gluttonous nation in the world to hold back on the McNuggets.”

Via e-mail, Tucker told me that he thought the airfare-by-weight plan could help families save money. “It would be good for parents bringing two kids along with them; a family of four shouldn't have to pay $2,000 to fly to Disney World.” That made a lot of sense. But then Tucker told me that when he finds himself edged out of an airplane seat by a large seatmate, he wishes he “had the guts to ask the flight attendant right in front of them for a seat change, but then again I don't feel like making a scene and I'd rather just make fat jokes to myself than embarrass the person.”

A better idea?
I was about to write Tucker and maybe promise to read his sports articles if he, in turn, promised to study some Well-Mannered Traveler columns, work on being a more sensitive traveler and quit it with those fat jokes.

But then I re-read his original comments and came up with a better idea.

Maybe instead of charging by weight, Tucker wrote, airlines could “charge passengers their fare based on their overall behavior ... So a needy passenger who is loud, takes up excessive cabin space or brings along a freeloading crabby baby would pay $500 as he exits the cabin. Whereas if I just shut up and listen to my iPod, don’t irritate my neighbors, complain about the temperature or use the restroom, I only pay $150.”

It needs some refining, but creating a passenger “report card,” as Tucker put it, might work. People might behave better if they knew they’d be charged extra for being rude or unruly. And while we’re thinking outside the box, why not add extra charges for having a bad attitude about fellow travelers?

Based on that grading curve, we’d have to impose a hefty “extra baggage” charge for folks who make fat jokes under their breath.

Harriet Baskas writes's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for