Starting Monday, passengers traveling on Korean Air may be asked to step on a scale before boarding their flight.
The exercise, which will last about three weeks, is required by law and applies to all Korean airlines, a Korean Air representative told CNBC.
The law requires airlines to weigh passengers and their carry-on bags at least every five years and is “crucial to the safety of airline operations,” the representative told CNBC.
The announcement sparked negative reactions from the public, according to local media.
A notice detailing the exercise – which is expected to begin on Monday at Gimpo International Airport, followed by Incheon Airport next month – was removed from the airline’s website, due to “notification and sufficient media coverage,” according to the airline.
Is it reasonable to weigh passengers?
“Certainly not,” said Vance Hilderman, CEO of aviation security company Afuzion.
At least not for security reasons, he said.
“If you’re in a small Bombardier, a small Embraer, and we had 10 very obese people… it might make a little difference,” he said. “On commercial aircraft, from a 737 and above, you know, 120 people, we have it built in.”
Aviation software can adapt to changes in weight, air density and other factors. This is why safety is not compromised even in situations where the passenger composition is atypical, such as an early morning flight composed mainly of business people, who tend to weigh more than the average traveler. , he said.
Overall, a significant increase in weight per passenger would be dwarfed by the weight of fuel, cargo and the plane itself, Hilderman said. “The fuel is 20 times more than the weight of the passengers,” he said.
Rather than focusing on passenger weight, it’s more important to accommodate additional cargo and the number of passengers on board, said Vance Hilderman, CEO of Afuzion.
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But Shem Malmquist, an instructor at Florida Tech’s College of Aeronautics, said random weight samples are a good idea.
“We use average passenger weights, but people are getting a lot heavier,” he said. “Three hundred people who weigh more than average can significantly increase the weight of an airplane, and all of our performance calculations – runway length, climb, obstacle clearance, landing distances, altitude capabilities – depend all weight, among other things.”
Hilderman agrees that people are getting taller, but he said passengers now differ in other ways as well.
“The Americans are getting heavier. The Chinese too, the Koreans too,” he said. “But we’re also flying younger… so that’s actually offsetting the increase in average human weight.”
A 2019 study published in the Journal of Transport & Health found that regions with higher obesity prevalence “could begin to see their safety margins significantly compromised if upward weight trends continue.”
Jose Silva, an associate professor at Australia’s RMIT University’s faculty of engineering and one of the study’s authors, told CNBC he believes airlines are reluctant to weigh passengers because of the sensitive nature of the subject.
“There is also a lack of understanding of the safety gains that could be achieved if there were more accurate ways of determining passenger weight, instead of relying on standards,” he said.
A whistleblower complaint filed in 2021 alleges that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration failed to recognize safety concerns caused by average passenger or baggage weights no longer reflecting the U.S. population.
Where airlines weigh passengers
Air New Zealand weighed its passengers in June for reasons it said were related to safety and fuel efficiency.
Finnair did the same in 2017, and Hawaiian Air performed several passenger weight exercises on flights between Honolulu and American Samoa. (According to Reuters, now-defunct Samoa Air charged passengers based on their weight.)
In the United States, travelers likely won’t be weighed, Hilderman said, even though an FAA advisory circular issued in 2019 said airlines could weigh passengers.
It’s a different story in Europe, where carriers follow European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) regulations.
U.S. airlines follow regulations set by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which do not require passengers to be weighed, Hilderman said.
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EASA weighed nearly 23,000 passengers in 2008 and 2009 and found that the average passenger weight had increased by 3 to 5 kilograms (6.6 to 11 pounds). A subsequent report published in 2022 found that the average passenger weight had increased slightly since 2009, reaching an average of 82 kg (181 pounds) for men and 68 kg (149 pounds) for women.
Periodic weight assessments – of passengers and other items on board – can help airlines determine whether weight estimates are still accurate to compensate for the amount of cargo they are carrying, Hilderman said.
But “there is a little more to this mystery,” he added.
“In Europe, they’re a little bit more stringent when it comes to individual privacy rights,” he said. “With EASA, they want to protect passengers and say: Look, passengers are getting taller and taller, so airlines want you to provide a minimum recline distance on your seats.”
Commercial airline seats are based on average passenger weights from the 1950s to the 1970s, Hilderman said. Since then, people have gotten taller, but seat pitch has decreased, he said: “29 inches in some cases is absolutely ridiculous.”
A hot topic
Passenger size on planes is a controversial topic – with oversized travelers filing allegations of discrimination over Lilliputian plane aisles and seat sizes, and smaller travelers speaking out publicly about seat encroachment.
But unlike other industries that serve heavy people — from chair makers to toilets to amusement park rides — the airline industry hasn’t made seats bigger.
“Some have proposed that obese passengers should be forced to pay for two seats so as not to inconvenience other passengers, but this allows airlines to escape liability,” said Nick Gausling, a consumer services consultant and director general of Romy Group LLC.
Gausling noted that while other industries have been pushed to prioritize customer experience, “consumers have very little choice to do business elsewhere” when it comes to airlines.
Tigress Osborn, executive director of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, told CNBC that most major airlines have responded by offering three options to overweight travelers: pay more for tickets with larger seats, buy a second seat or stay at home.
“Fat people deserve to travel for pleasure, just like everyone else, and we also need to remember that air travel is for work, family obligations and other responsibilities as well,” she said. “Our taxes help support this industry, and we deserve to be housed safely and comfortably, with access to accessible seating at all price points.”
Ideas to help heavy passengers
Hilderman said airlines can sell second seats to plus-size travelers at a heavily discounted rate.
As people have gotten taller, airline seats have gotten smaller, leading to frequent complaints from air travelers of all sizes.
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They can also reserve half a dozen seats for taller people, for which passengers can register privately online, using the height and weight information on their driver’s license, he said. explain.
Those seats could be sold for a small fee, and if they weren’t reserved by qualified passengers the week before the flight, they could be released to anyone willing to pay for them, he added.
Any hope for wider seats?
As for whether airlines will increase seat sizes for everyone, Hilderman said that while it is mathematically possible, it is not practical.
“The diameters of the fuselage were predetermined,” he said, referring to the main body of the plane. “We currently have 29,000 commercial aircraft flying, and we only produce about 1,500 per year. So it would take 20 years to replace the entire fleet.”
Retrofitting planes with wider seats means narrowing the aisle, which is already very narrow, he said. Widening the aisle would require removing one seat per row, which would result in an overall increase in ticket prices of 20 to 25 percent, he said.
“Most people don’t look at what type of airplane they’re flying, and they have no idea about seat recline or width,” Hilderman said. “They simply buy based on price – and the airlines know it.”
Arnold Barnett, professor of management science and statistics at the MIT Sloan School of Management, told CNBC that most travelers are willing to put up with current seat sizes in exchange for lower fares.
If the seats changed, “airfares would have to increase and flights would become unaffordable for passengers on limited budgets.”
For many, a tight seat on a plane is better than a seat on a bus, he said.
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