The continuously increasing obesity rate and its socioeconomic consequences have been a matter of discussion for several years. Airline companies have recently reacted to the phenomenon by applying additional charges to overweight passengers. However, several ethical questions arise.
Is it moral to surcharge passengers that occupy a bigger volume? Would it be ethically acceptable if airlines decide to charge passengers according to their body weight?
Airlines and aircraft manufacturers can give answers to those questions by adopting better strategies and innovative thinking.
The present analysis is based on the ability of airlines and manufacturers to maintain or improve their position in the market while providing the highest degree of comfort to their customers. Every decision made by those bodies needs to consider the general principles of fairness, social equality and respect for diversity through which equal treatment can be achieved for all passengers. The different policies followed by airlines, with regards to obesity charges, raise questions about the impact that such strategies may have on the company’s reputation and the moral acceptance that they will receive from the public.
One Person – One Fare
Kant’s moral theory introduced the idea of universal human worth equality postulate through which individuals should be treated with equal concern and respect by others. Following this framework, it can be argued that surcharging overweight passengers is a form of discrimination that undermines the social equality principles. Moral norms should be unconditionally adopted in all situations. However, imposing additional charges on specific passengers according to their body weight or specific needs, leads to a contradiction with airline policies and hence, a general moral law cannot be derived. This is because extra fees are not applied in other situations where increased carrying weight is observed, such as the transportation of wheelchairs by disabled people. The Canadian Transportation Agency issued a one person – one fare policy protecting disabled and clinically obese passengers (BBC). Following the principle of equality, additional costs arising from the increased fuel consumption due to weight should be equally distributed among all passengers rather than being applied to specific individuals.
The internal arrangement of commercial aircraft is usually organised into business and economy class zones both of which may not satisfy the space requirements of an obese person. Although obesity follows an increasing trend (WHO – World Health Organization), airlines are continuously reducing the space available per passenger in an attempt to accommodate more people per flight and increase their profits. The majority of US companies force overweight passengers to book an additional seat if they cannot fit comfortably in a single seat. If they fail to do so, customers risk missing their flight or pay additional fare charges for their transportation. Since the current solutions are associated with practicality and fairness issues, aircraft manufacturers are responsible for improving cabin space conditions. Engineering professional ethics, defined by the codes of conduct of the National Society of Professional Engineers state that professionals are responsible for ensuring the welfare of the public and their customers. This implies that manufacturers have the duty to produce innovative designs that will provide the maximum amount of comfort to all passengers while minimising potential losses to airline companies. A possible solution could be the introduction of adjustable seat size.
Be Fair, Book a Pair
Utilitarianism states that any strategies adopted should aim to optimise the overall comfort and cost which are the main controlling factors of the stakeholders’ happiness. With increasing global obesity and decreasing seat size, comfort value is at its highest. This is exemplified by the fact that the majority of airlines offer additional seating space at an increased cost. Overweight passengers purchasing additional seats is likely to benefit themselves, other passengers and aircraft operators.
A pricing scheme was implemented, in order to quantify and compare the effect of current comfort policies. This is achieved by analysing the value loss to the airline, in the case of decreased passenger comfort due to oversize passengers purchasing a single seat and the case of oversize passengers purchasing an additional ticket, at a reduced cost, as currently practised by Air France. In the case where overweight passengers purchase a single seat, the value loss to the airline due to discomfort was estimated by considering obesity statistics (WHO), and the average airline ticket price. For the comfort case, each oversize passenger was assumed to purchase an additional seat at half the original price, resulting in a value loss to the airline due to the compromised ticket price.
The results from the calculations (figure below) suggest that a £2100 value loss per flight can be prevented by implementing pricing schemes, such as those introduced by Air France. Therefore, it can be concluded that similar strategies can have a positive impact on the company’s value resulting from improved passenger comfort and hence, according to the main principles of utilitarianism, are deemed as a justifiable action.
From the economic and common sense perspectives, fuel is the main variable expense of aircraft operators and can significantly affect ticket price. As fuel consumption is directly proportional to aircraft weight, the contribution of overweight people towards a higher ticket price is more significant. At the moment, most companies do not discriminate ticket price according to passenger weight, therefore one can conclude that underweight passengers are subsidising overweight passengers. As a result, it is not uncommon for passengers with a lower overall weight contribution (low body weight & heavy luggage) to face a greater financial loss than oversize passengers whose total weight contribution to the aircraft is significantly higher (high body weight & light luggage). A weight-based pricing system can be considered a better alternative, as luggage weight is already financially accounted for, while passenger weight is not.
From the analysis performed, a greater overall benefit can be achieved by considering the outcomes of the utilitarian approach. Although Kant’s theory raised some important points, it is believed that the implementation of a one person – one fare scheme would assure equality but not necessarily justice. A middle way solution could be the implementation of adjustable seats with a weight-volume pricing scheme, as it will ensure a fair distribution of cost and associated benefits.