Air Travel by the Pound and Other Odd Airline Pricing Schemes

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After tiny upstart carrier Samoa Air announced it would start charging passengers based on how much they weigh, travelers reacted by calling the pricing model wacky, impractical, even discriminatory. But it’s only one of several weird, possibly unwelcomed ways that flights might be priced down the line.

Samoa Air’s announcement of a “pay-by-the-pound” model didn’t come completely out of the blue. Ryanair, the notoriously fee-happy European carrier, floated the possibility of a “fat tax” on overweight passengers a few years ago, though the main point may have been to generate publicity. Southwest Airlines has periodically drawn attention over the years due to its policy of forcing larger passengers to purchase two seats.

Just days before Samoa Air introduced its new pricing policy, a professor from Norway published a report making the case that charging passengers based on total weight—person and baggage combined—is a policy that all airlines should consider, in order to cut weight on planes and also to price flights fairly.

“Many passengers ask why airlines only charge for overweight baggage but not for overweight passengers, if weight is the key concern for an airplane operation and more weight results in more fuel consumption,” Bharat Bhatta wrote in the March issue of Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management. A “pay-as-you-weigh” structure “may provide significant benefits to airlines, passengers and society at large,” Bhatta says.

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Samoa Air CEO Chris Langton seems to agree. After news spread of the airline’s pricing change, Langton defended the model in a Reuters story, and said he expected other airlines to follow suit:

“Aeroplanes always run on weight, irrespective of seats. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the concept of the future. This is the fairest way of you travelling with your family, or yourself.”

While it’s possible that the practice of charging passengers by the pound could one day be commonplace, it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon on a large scale. Samoa Air flies very small planes (12-seaters), and its clientele tends to be on the heavy side (more than half of adult Samoans are considered obese), so passengers account for far larger percentage of the total mass than fliers do on the big planes flown by mainstream carriers. What’s more, for the vast majority of airlines, which pack hundreds of fliers in per flight, weighing each passenger with baggage would be a logistical nightmare. It’d be a PR nightmare as well, probably with boycotts and charges of discrimination.

So instead of weight-based pricing, we’re probably bound to encounter more and more “debundling” of airfares, the trend that’s been in the works for more than a decade, in which products and services from checked baggage to seat reservations are priced a la carte. A new study by IdeaWorks highlights three airline pricing models that aim to boost so-called “ancillary revenues,” which is anything bought above and beyond the base price of a flight. One model is pure a la carte sales practiced by low-fare carriers like Spirit Airlines, in which pretty much everything other than basic transportation costs extra and is priced individually. Two other increasingly popular pricing models present travelers with a range of fare options—far beyond the old coach or first class division—that allow customers to pick (and pay for) the flight and package of services that best suit their needs.

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These rejiggered fare structures have proven to be quite lucrative for airlines. It’s widely believed that Spirit Airlines and Ryanair—the world’s most fee-crazed carriers, both at the forefront of a la carte pricing—have been the most profitable airlines of late. One study showed that the average Spirit passenger paid $103 in ancillary fees per round trip.

And while some travelers gripe about being nickel and dimed with a charge for every little “perk” such as a bottle of water, others like the idea that they get to choose what services they want and are willing to pay for. Even Southwest Airlines, which has long pushed its bundled “bags fly free” policy, has been adding fees and exploring a la carte pricing.

So don’t hold your breath waiting for the return of airfares that include checked baggage, food and drinks, and seat reservations with every purchase. Those days are gone, presumably for good.

What other kinds of flight pricing might travelers encounter down the line? Two possibilities have emerged recently, and passengers may find them weirder, and perhaps even more off-putting than the idea of being charged based on their weight.

A small, Las Vegas-based carrier called Allegiant Air has been pushing a “variable pricing” system, in which passengers agree to pay based on the cost of fuel at the time of takeoff. Customers would pay one price when they book flights, and then later could be charged more if fuel prices rise between the time of purchase and departure.

(MORE: Flight Prices to Get Personal? Airfares Could Vary Depending on Who Is Traveling)

The other possibility is a “personalized pricing” model, in which the airfares that show up in searches will be determined partly on the individual’s travel and purchase history, as well as factors like one’s marital status and nationality. Travel advocates argue that such a pricing scheme amounts to “profiling,”, and that it would particularly discriminate against business travelers and others that have limited flexibility with flight times.

The world’s biggest airlines are among those supporting Resolution 787, the proposed initiative that would allow such “personalized” pricing. Sometime this spring, the Department of Transportation is expected to announce whether the resolution will be approved.