After years of battling with economic decline and rising fuel prices, airlines were recently presented with a tentative solution from an unlikely source. CNN reported that Dr. Bharat P. Bhatta, an associate professor of economics at Sogn og Fjordane University College in Norway, proposed that air ticket costs be calculated according to passenger weight.
Media outlets have given the idea the name “fat tax,” and though the entire policy does seem discriminatory toward heavier passengers, economic and environmental practicalities must be considered. A fat tax on airfare might be a move toward more fair and practical solution to not only the economic issues for airlines, but also the health issues of our world.
Bhatta is proposing three models in his paper, published in the Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management last November, that might “provide significant benefits to airlines, passengers and society at large,” according to CNN.
“Charging according to weight and space is a universally accepted principle, not only in transportation, but also in other services,” Bhatta said in his paper. “As weight and space are far more important in aviation than other modes of transport, airlines should take this into account when pricing their tickets.”
One of his suggestions is based on total weight, with the price of the airline ticket based per pound and the total cost depending on the combined weight of the passenger and luggage.
The second is a base fare, with a per-pound weight subcharge applying to overweight passengers.
The third is the high/low method, in which Bhatta proposes that a standard weight range be chosen, and that passengers above or below the range receive credit or are charged additional fees. Weight would be self-declared, with one in five passengers randomly weighed to deter cheaters.
Though at a glance, this might seem to be an act of discrimination against people for their weight, technically, it is merely a tax of practicality. The intentions of the policy are pragmatic and the end goal is not to deliberately refuse service to any one group. Safety concerns are also behind the policy, in anticipation of cases where larger individuals might pose a hazard with emergency exits and so on.
In addition, the flight experience of those whom are not overweight should be considered. Airlines such as Southwest do have policies for overweight passengers that cannot fit into one seat to purchase extra seats, but as ABC News stated, these policies are “often arbitrarily enforced and the airlines who try to enforce them tend to suffer backlash from the public,” as seen in many cases.
Kenlie Tiggeman, a “too-fat-to-fly” passenger, sued Southwest in 2012 for “discriminatory actions … toward obese customers,” according to ABC News. And actor-director Kevin Smith lashed out at the same airline on Twitter in 2012 for being removed because he was “too large for his seat.”
However, the experience of other passengers is important as well. Any flier who has had to scrunch into the middle seat between two passengers of larger size thinks it’s unfair to share a seat that they paid equally for. In a poll by the Daily Mail for the UK, 43 percent of women and 51 percent of men were in favor of the additional charges, indicating that a significant portion of the population sees an issue with the status quo.
The implementation of a fat tax policy could also have positive effects in the health sphere, posing an effective incentive for healthier lifestyles in a world that is becoming increasingly larger. According to the World Health Organization, obesity globally has nearly doubled since 1980, with 35 percent of adults over the age of 20 falling under the label of overweight in 2008. With a fat tax in place, unhealthy diets will be discouraged for many, offsetting the economic costs of obesity as well as the quality of health for many.
By no means is the policy perfect. There is also a long list of scenarios to account for — how the general discrepancy between the weights of women and men should be considered, how height should factor in, the expensive cost and time of having to weigh passengers in check-in, whether or not seats should then be wider for the passengers that must pay more, how those seats will be built into new models, what to do for people have serious medical issues with weight, such as hypothyroidism, and even if there should just be select flights for the policy to be applied. However, with refinement and more planning, the tax does have its benefits. Yes, there is the looming potential for long lines and embarrassing moments, but any airport security check-in is already fraught with them.
With no better solution in the air, this could be a good bet. If no change is implemented, air fare for all passengers will only go up.
Valerie Yu is a freshman majoring in biological sciences and English. Her column “Heart of the Matter” runs Fridays.