This morning on the radio I heard a report about airlines charging more for overweight luggage. Or maybe they were reducing the weight limit on luggage, because charging for overweight luggage is nothing new. I came in after the report had begun and I can’t seem to find any correlating story online to fill in the blanks.

Airlines have long employed a size limit to luggage, but each increased pound an aircraft must carry decreases its fuel efficiency. This wasn’t such a big deal when fuel was cheaper, but airlines are struggling to figure out how to cover their soaring fuel expenses. Size restrictions help ensure that there will be sufficient cargo space for all of the passenger baggage on a flight, but weight restrictions directly limit fuel costs, which is one of the expenses airlines find most difficult to control.

One disgruntled passenger suggested that if airlines are going to charge per pound of baggage, it would make sense for them to charge per pound of passenger. That started me thinking. What would happen if airlines decided to charge each passenger by weight?

That might prove impractical. Airlines would likely just charge for passenger pounds in excess of an established weight limit as they now do with luggage. What would happen if airlines announced such a plan?

First off, you’d have activists coming out of the woodwork freaking out about it. I mean, nobody can be faulted for being born with a given genetic makeup. What if your genetic makeup lends more easily to obesity? Airlines would be charged with discriminating against heavier people and creating a new elite status for the petite. It’s a lot easier to change the weight of your luggage than to change the weight of your body.

I doubt any such plan would ever be seriously considered because even airline executives must realize what a bad public relations move it would be. But what if that was not an insurmountable problem? What then?

I suspect that many airline passengers would suddenly get very serious about controlling their weight. Some might opt for rail or bus travel rather than be subjected to the indignity of being officially labeled as overweight. Our national obsession with thinness (while trying to live as decadently as possible) would be further enhanced. Maybe restaurants with a larger traveling clientele would offer more options for the weight conscious.

Airlines have substantial fixed costs, significant costs over which they have little control, and relatively few costs over which they have great control. They also have limited ability to pass increased costs on to customers. US-based airlines have yet to develop a successful model for turning a profit while meeting customer demands.

Ricardo Semler, the Brazilian promoter of industrial democracy, in 2004 said of the airline industry:

“I think that is the only industry so far that has managed to make all of the
stakeholders lose. The shareholders don't make any money. The executives don't
last. The planes don't get better. The air-traffic controllers have the worst
job in the world. The crew is never happy. The pilots are on strike. The food is
just awful. There's not a good thing you can say about the business of flying.”
He forgot to mention the bizarre security rituals through which we all dutifully pass before being permitted to fly. But at least we don’t appear to be doing racial profiling, eh?

The WSJ’s Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. suggests that airlines follow the successful path of another industry with nearly the same types of challenges. Most of us are blissfully unaware that the ocean shipping industry has heavily engaged in price fixing for over a century. The reason we don’t care is because “customers actually benefited, because it made the reliable service they sought economically viable.”

Americans would never settle for airline pricing that punished passengers for being overweight. But they might settle for cartel-style price fixing if the results are better than what we have today.
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