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The only difference between first class travellers and first class idiots is the price they pay.
Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel Asia

The Wild Waist aloft

Airlines cut the fat, dropping life vests, and charging passengers by the kilo.


Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Samoa Air starts charging passengers by the kilo
Whoa...this plane is definitely NOT for fat people

IT'S NOT only supermodels who are obsessed with weight. Airlines have been trying to shave pounds for years, trimming in-flight magazines and bottles of duty-free alcohol, and slapping punitive fees on everything from excess baggage to obese passengers. Regional carrier Jazz (an Air Canada subsidiary) went as far as tossing out its life vests. It is easy to see why. With the exception of Dumbo the elephant, large and heavy objects cannot fly. Every additional kilogram onboard translates into higher fuel burn and operating cost.

Fuel has become an indiscreet and unwelcome burden for airlines and passengers alike. A roundtrip Jet Airways economy fare Delhi-Hong Kong in June cost HK$2,480 for the ticket and HK$2,582 for the fuel surcharge. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future we might book the fuel surcharge first and worry less about the small additional tax for the ticket itself.

Now airlines have a new weight obsession. You. The principles of flight are simple. They involve weight, thrust, drag and lift. If you are too heavy and the plane cannot get airborne, fellow passengers are likely to drag you to the aircraft door and thrust you out forcefully, thereby generating lift. More simply, an airline could charge you for your lawless wild waist. This is not a new idea. In The Philippines, Pacific Air once weighed passengers along with their bags before carefully calibrating the seating and loading arrangement. You did not pick a seat. You were allocated one based on weight. Some passengers never made it to Boracay and, marooned on the weigh scales, in full view of everyone, acquired a ruddy flush – by far a swifter and cheaper way to acquire a tan.

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Samoa Air, another Pacific island maverick, has started charging passengers and their baggage by weight. As the airline says, "a kilo is a kilo is a kilo." This cheerfully egalitarian regime means you get to pay an average of US$1 for everything including your date's gigantic new silicone implants. Samoa Air is right to be concerned with weight. It flies a region of islands renowned for some of the heaviest people in the world. In neighbouring Tonga, the late king entered Guinness as the most weighty royal at 209kg. He later slimmed down to a trifling 130kg. Obesity, especially among women, is synonymous with beauty. Yet, planes have to fly. And to do so they need to cut the fat. This why a tiny airline (with a fleet of Cessna 172s and Britten Normans) is now at the epicentre of a revolution in flying.

This cheerfully egalitarian regime - paying by the kilo - means you get to fork out an average of US$1 for everything including your date's impressive new silicone implants...

It's not just Pacific islanders that are a cause for concern. Obesity is on the rise and global populations have all registered an increase in weight over the past 20 years. According to the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine that recently drew up a league of the fattest countries, Micronesia tops the scales with an average weight of 87.4kg. Australia weighs in at 77.36kg, China at 60.5kg, India at 52.94kg, with Vietnam a modest 50.73kg. An average American woman today who weighs a textbook 75 kilograms with 25 kilos of luggage would be charged around US$100 for a short 20-minute flight.

This prompted at least one writer in a respected UK newspaper to fume at "body fascism" and fat-bashing that plays to the gallery. Several airlines do ask obese passengers to purchase an extra seat. Southwest spells it out clearly in its Customers of Size policy for passengers "who encroach upon any part of the neighboring seat".

In October 2012 an American couple who flew KLM from New York to Hungary were denied boarding on return. Thrice. First on KLM as there was a problem with the seat back. The couple tried flying Lufthansa and Delta but, with Vilma Soltesz weighing in at an earth-crunching 182kg, this just wasn't to be. No forklift. Wheelchair not big enough. Problem with the seat belt. And so on. Vilma died of kidney failure a short while after and her husband is suing the three airlines.

The Samoa Air charge of US$1 per kilo is actually a very good deal. Compare this with what international airlines charge for excess baggage. Cathay Pacific levies between US$10 and US$60 per kilo depending on the zone. Singapore Airlines charges from US$8 to US$60, again based on region.

In November 2012, the Norway Sogn og Fjordane University College published a paper calling charge by weight a "powerful tool" to ensure "greater efficiency, fairness and environmental sustainability". A kilogram cut in-flight saves an estimated US$3,000 a year in fuel bills as well as carbon dioxide.

It's time to lose weight and save the planet folks. Tighten your belts. Travel light. And offer your mother-in-law the exit row window seat where a modest flick of a lever and a kindly shove can instantly improve cabin ventilation and save the airline thousands of dollars as you help lighten its load.

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