Plane passengers - CC / Flickr
Plane passengers - CC / Flickr

An article at Boing Boing caught my eye today – that United Airlines wants to charge obese passengers for two seats. The argument is a simple one: if you’re too large to fit into a seat you have to pay for a second one as you are inconveniencing the person sat beside you. I always seem to be sat beside fat people or men with bad limb geometry and this gets very frustrating.

But what could be done?

Ryanair and other cheap airlines are doing their best to find ways to most efficiently price their tickets – you have to pay extra to check in luggage, and Ryanair is even considering charging for the toilets. So why not go one step further and charge for extra weight around the waist?

This idea has a whole bunch of complications: what do you do about people who are obese due to a medical condition? The presentation of a medical certificate would solve that one. But what about tall people? They cannot help being tall but many overweight people can help being fat. The solution is not to charge by weight as such, but factoring in Body Mass Index instead. A normal ticket would be issued to those people that had a BMI of up to 25 (slightly above ‘Normal’). Thereafter each extra 1kg of person would result in 1kg of baggage allocation reduction. So an individual 15kg heavier than average BMI for their height would have to pay extra to bring luggage into the plane. A person 5kg above normal would get 10kg of baggage included etc.

It makes good sense – if we pay for excess baggage, we need a fair way to calculate for excess fat. After all that weighs down our planes too!

[UPDATE – 17.04.09] Seems someone beat me to it – the BMI pricing suggestion is on Ryanair’s website!


  1. I am in favour of this market instrument because it favours me. That is how I like the market! Good job, Jon!

    I think we should have an EU regulation then, I suppose the Council and the Parliament will need just one or two years after the Commission has made a proposal.

    By the way: Would Barroso have to pay then? He could be a simple citizen by that time…

  2. I see your point. I’m a fatty so would have to pay extra… actually, with the extra amount I’d have to pay it might just be cheaper for me to get a first class ticket with BA than go with RyanAir… But seriously, even as a fat person I’d struggle to argue against this and either just go with an airline with seating more suited to me and have to pay extra for that or, if money were such a concern to me, I’d just have to shift a few pounds… or stone.

    Although, and forgive me for thinking out loud here, but isn’t there a correlation between fat people and poor people? (I’m not actually sure on that one by the way and am making a blind assumption that people in poor areas are more likely to be obese) … Charging based on BMI could price those fatter people out of the market of flying and leave them to use alternative, probably ground-based, means of travel. So, I suppose, you’d ultimately end up with a two-tier travel system with the air full of thin fairly well-off people and a few fat rich people up in first class with the coaches and trains below crammed with the fatties like me. Think of the axels people! Think of the poor road surfaces under that weight!

    Think of us poor fatties down below as you fly to your tropical climbes whilst we look up to the sky en route to Benidorm on the coach and wonder why, oh why, did we have to have that extra helping of ice cream and why, oh why, did we hvae to join the queue at Gregs when we could have had a tomato instead followed by a punishing session in the gym. For if we had we too would be flying in the sky with all the pretty, slim and rich people.

    Alright, alright, I’ve gone OTT and tongue is most certainly in cheek for most of that, but you get the gist…

  3. EvilEuropean

    Is it fat people or heavy people that are the problem, or is it the space that they take up?
    I do weight training and now am technically overweight….but I take up less space on a seat than someone who has the same BMI as me but fat.

    Jon, you really should not be putting ideas into Ryanairs head!

  4. Hmmm, this is getting a bit complex… Essentially width of a person is the problem for the other passengers. Weight of the person is the problem for fuel use of the aircraft when taking off…

    So: if you are too wide to fit one seat you have to take 2… and then thereafter you calculate on BMI?

  5. Regarding the update: No comment. Sometimes reality is worse than we are able to stand…

  6. I’ve seen the Ryanair idea – yet another reason I don’t want to fly with them.
    My husband and I are both technically overweight on the BMI scale, but neither of us would overhang an aeroplane seat.
    But there’s more to it than BMI, so I’d find it offensive in the extreme to be asked to pay more per kilo of bodyweight in effect for being female-shaped (given where I carry my body fat).
    My tiny son barely takes up a seat. Would he get a more substantial discount for being on the 0.2 percentile for his age? Would his smallness offset any excess kilos his parents may be carrying? However he is rather wriggly – may be that would count against him?
    And what about pregnant women before 26 weeks? They may well fall foul of BMI too but its healthy fat and fluid for babybuilding rather than too many cheeseburgers…

  7. What about smelly people? They suck too! I suggest we institute a new apartheid regime for all categories of people that we don’t like. History shows that discriminating on sex, skin color of presumed race is also rather popular. Ooo, or take religion: no more muslims on our planes means less chance of dying!

    Let’s just not start… Although the fact that I’m young, thin, male, handsome and European (this passport gets me anywhere…), I’m mostly proud of being human. Let’s stay human(e).

  8. I always thought “devide and rule” would be a better European motto than “united in diversity” 🙂

  9. @Jo – I don’t think either of those issues are irreconcilable. First of all the BMI brackets for men and women are different, and that would have to apply to this pricing mechanism as well. Same for children – indeed airlines ought to be better with their pricing of kids seats anyway (but that’s another issue) and anyone who is pregnant should not be charged any extra.

    @Michael – we live our lives according to market principles. The same should apply to this. Sweets and chocolate in the UK have VAT levied on them because they are not good for you. Putting extra weight in an aircraft is not good for the environment, so you need a market mechanism to deal with that too. And no, no levy on someone that’s smelly – that’s a completely different externality.

    Oh, and if you read German have a look at this from Die Welt for more arguments.

  10. I think Ryanair are going to find themselves in serious legal trouble if they try to implement their extra charges for men over 130kg but women over 100kg (or for men with a more-than- 45 inch waist but women for a more-than-40 inch waist): it’s normally not legal to announce that women and men will be charged different prices for the same service. They may also have a difficulty with BMI, as women and men vary on that so that a court may find that this is effectively sex discrimination even if not explicitly so.

    They may be able to charge for a second seat if a person doesn’t fit into just one (their fourth option) as that’s their only non-discriminatory option: but I noticed in the news that a Canadian court has ruled that in fact airlines simply have to swallow the cost of an extra seat, if they choose to provide seats that are too narrow for their customer base to fit into.

    I like this better.

  11. Forget all of this supposed PC stuff of BMI etc. Plus the cost of extra weight to the airline (in extra fuel etc.) is not “large” relative to the real cost to the airline which is the per seat cost. Therefore, if you take up two seats, you pay for two seats. This is somewhat “obvious”. I.e. the airline is losing a “paying” customer if two (or even 1 1/2 seats) are occupied by ONE person. I suppose if you could match up a large person with a small child in “side by side” seating, maybe the child could pay 1/2 price for the seat and the large person could pay 1 1/2 times for the seat. This can be difficult to accomplish in the “real world” though. And forget all of this talk about making WIDER seats. That means wider aircraft which are definitely a lot LESS aerodynamic and therefore LESS fuel efficient and therefore will DEFINITELY cost a lot MORE to operate.

  12. It seems kind of unfair to charge large sized people extra fare. However, it’s also not fair to have them overlapping seats, and intruding on the passenger next to them.

    I think the airlines have reduced the size of the seats for economy class over the years, in order to fit more people in. I think it’s time that they reserved a few places to accomodate such people.

  13. Davethetemp

    Hi Jon,

    I take your article and the comments above with extra interest as it is me and my wife in the photo above (my friend had us “snuggle in” for the picture). I’ve ridden planes at my goal weight (188 lbs for a 6’2″ person) heavier than in this picture, and more recently (slightly less). In all cases, I can assure you that my lower half was not as wide as my shoulders. What has changed more than my frame is the room available per seat (particularly in discount carriers).

    Ironically, we used Ryanair for short hops in Europe on that trip and, because they do not have upholstered seats or magazine holders, I had an additional 5 cm of leg room and shoulder room, which made all the difference.

    More than any other factor, ticket prices seem to be based on advanced purchase (those who *need* to fly next week get charged top price). If I can still get to Rome on a 15 euro ticket, paying for extra pounds will still be a bargain compared to what a low BMI person will be charged on a short notice purchase.

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