Another weighty discrimination issue

An ABC story yesterday, subsequently picked up by the BBC and the New Zealand Herald, reports the claims of Samoa Air that it has successfully implemented a policy of charging passengers by weight. As the airline’s website explains it, “No more exorbitant excess baggage fees, or being charged for baggage you may not carry. Your weight plus your baggage items, is what you pay for. Simple.”

Chief executive Chris Langton, quoted in the report, says “There are no extra fees in terms of excess baggage or anything – it is just a kilo is a kilo.” He argues that “airlines don’t run on seats, they run on weight.”

I don’t want to trespass on Ben Sandilands’ territory, but clearly that last line isn’t entirely true: a plane only has a certain number of seats, so numbers count as well as total weight. Nonetheless, weight is very important, and the smaller the aeroplane the more care has to be taken to distribute the weight around it evenly. Charging passengers by weight is not obviously irrational in the way that, say, charging them by hair color would be.

But the New Zealand Herald was able to stir up some outrage. A spokeswoman for “Fight the Obesity Epidemic” was appalled at the very idea: “It’s a stigmatisation of people and really just powerfully discriminating.”

This is one of those issues that pops up from time to time. Most major airlines have obviously put it in the “too hard” basket; they weigh and carefully control the luggage that passengers bring with them, but say nothing about the weight of the passengers themselves – except for making unduly large passengers pay for a second seat if they won’t fit in just one, which is a question of volume rather than weight.

Even that can get them into trouble, as with the case of a French scriptwriter who won 8,000 euros in a lawsuit against Air France in 2007 for the “humiliation” of having his waist measured at New Delhi airport. (I wrote about the case while it was in progress.)

But the claim that a pay-for-weight system is discriminatory is radically dependent on one’s point of view. The thinner-than-average passenger, forced to manage with a luggage allowance the same as that of a passenger twice their size, can easily argue that they are the one being discriminated against. “Why should that person be allowed to weigh the plane down twice as much as me for the same price?”

Proponents of anti-discrimination laws tend to assume that discrimination, although it may be difficult to prove, is conceptually a straightforward thing to identify. But that’s not the case. As I said in 2006, “Either policy involves ‘discrimination’ – which after all just means ‘choice’. The issue is whether or not the grounds for discrimination are relevant, and that is simply not a matter of hard fact.”

The more we extend the range of anti-discrimination laws beyond the relatively easy categories of race, gender and political or religious opinion (although even there there are minefields), the more these problems are going to arise.

This seems a good example of a case that can be safely left to the market. If you think obese people are being discriminated against, don’t fly Samoa Air. But if you think skinny people have been getting a rough deal, write to your airline and ask that they follow Samoa Air’s lead.



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