Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Airlines vs passengers

As a disciplined air traveler who checks in his suitcase, and carries a small laptop bag always, I find it annoying when fellow passengers walk in with bulky cabin baggage and rush in to grab the overhead space. And, if returning home from international travel, people tend to pick up duty-free stuff at airports and carry 3-4 plastic bags filled with goodies. Some airlines are wise to this trick and weigh the cabin baggage (or check for bulkiness) at the point of boarding. They then force you to pay excess baggage or arrange to check it in. But this doesn’t happen always, and airlines leave passengers to fend for themselves. Economy class travel, therefore, turns out to be nightmarish.

The battle between airlines who want to milk the passengers for excess charges (citing load factor, safety, etc) and seasoned passengers who know how to work around the system rages on. If a passenger with excess baggage sights a co-passenger with lighter luggage, he immediately latches on to him with a request to check in together, and collude to fool the airline. Today, I guess, passengers are more wary and do not accommodate such requests from strangers, but there’s no harm in trying, is there?

An article in New York Times discusses this issue:

An entire cottage industry has emerged for products that help people evade the baggage-check fees, according to Kate Hanni, director of, a consumer group that represents airline passengers. Ms. Hanni uses vacuum-seal bags inside her carry-on bags, she said; the bags, which shrink down to a compact package when air is pulled out by a vacuum cleaner, allow her to fit considerably more items in a carry-on than would normally be possible.

“I can fit three times the amount of clothes in a carry-on than I used to be able to,” she said.

There is also the Scottevest line of travel clothing in which trench coats, vests and other garments are made with large built-in pockets that allow people to carry everything from folded shirts to an iPad.

“You can fit all of your folded shirts, iPad, cellphone, iPod, sunglasses, camera, passport, keys — you can put everything in the jacket that you would put in a carry-on,” Ms. Hanni said. “It’s sort of sweet justice.”

The fair way would be to fix a ‘total weight” and make each passenger stand on a weighing machine, with all his/her luggage, and to charge excess fee. This would mean that those who weigh more will either have to compensate by carrying less luggage or by paying excess fee. This will also act as an incentive for people to exercise and lose weight. The general health of the flying community will improve.

Writing in "The Age", columnist Tony Webber says:

To cut to the chase: people who weigh more should pay more to fly on planes - in the same way that people who exceed their baggage allowance must fork out extra.

The rationale is simple. The fuel burnt by planes depends on many things but the most important is the weight of the aircraft. The more a plane weighs, the more fuel it must burn.

If the passengers on the aircraft weigh more, the aircraft consumes more fuel and the airline's costs go up.

In turn, the airline will need to lift airfares to recover these additional costs. And when they do, the burden of these higher fees should not be lumbered on those who are shedding a few kilos or keeping their weight stable.

In fact, airline fuel costs have increased since 2000 not just because of higher oil and jet fuel prices - although these are by far the most important drivers of higher costs - but also because the average adult passenger is carrying a bit more heft.

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