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Glide Path: Lightening the load

It’s a weighty problem: how do you put people into metal tubes and then transport them across vast distances while and do it for a price that will not scare the passengers off allowing room for profit? The business model for commercial aviation, large or small, has been unalterably changed by two factors in the past 20 years: the stratospheric rise in fuel costs coupled with an equally pervasive demand for cheaper fares from those who fill the tubes.


July 9, 2013
By Paul Dixon

Topics

It’s a weighty problem: how do you put people into metal tubes and then transport them across vast distances while and do it for a price that will not scare the passengers off allowing room for profit? The business model for commercial aviation, large or small, has been unalterably changed by two factors in the past 20 years: the stratospheric rise in fuel costs coupled with an equally pervasive demand for cheaper fares from those who fill the tubes.

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With the introduction of the jet age, the “average” weight of North American men and women has increased by 15 per cent. (PHOTO: Paul Dixon)


Forty-five years ago the future lay in “plastics,” but today the future lies in “ancillary revenues.” That’s the future of maintaining profitability in the aviation business. For airlines, their success will depend on how much money the passenger is willing to spend beyond the price of the ticket. It’s the challenge of providing services that people want and will actually pay for, while at the same time eliminating as many of the money-losers as possible. Eliminating meals on domestic flights not only saves money for the airline, but just as importantly, it eliminates weight from the flight.

Last year at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Seattle, I spoke with Melissa Raudebaugh, Delta Airlines’ general manager of aircraft experience, about Delta’s approach to levying baggage charges. Delta was the only major American carrier to hang back on charging for checked bags, as they anticipated a wave of customer resistance towards the airlines that did. They were in for a rude shock, as there was no meaningful impact in terms of passengers flocking to Delta to save a few dollars. The lesson they did learn was that Delta had lost tens of millions in potential revenue by waiting a year to implement checked baggage fees.

By introducing baggage charges as well as lowering the allowable weight limits on baggage, airlines are indeed capturing additional revenue on the one hand, but they are also saving money by creating an incentive for passengers to pack less. Less baggage, less weight. Less weight, less fuel burn. For Delta, an increase of one cent a gallon in fuel costs translates to about $40 million over a year, creating a huge incentive to reduce non-revenue-generating weight on aircraft.

Samoa Air, a very small airline, made worldwide headlines earlier this year when it announced it would begin charging passengers based on their weight. It’s actually the combined weight of the passenger and their baggage, with the same rate per kilo applied to both. To say that you can’t buy the publicity generated by this announcement is an understatement of epic proportions. CEO Chris Langton has had his name and face splashed across the world’s media as he has defended the program. Langton points out that as with any airline, fuel is its major cost. Unlike larger commercial airlines, Samoa Air has fewer chances at ancillary charges as they carry little freight and don’t offer food or beverages on flights.

At check-in, Samoa Air passengers step a scale with their luggage. Human or suitcase, the charge is the same on a per-kilogram basis. An 80-kg passenger flying from Apia to Asau and carrying 20 kilograms of luggage would pay US$132 for the flight (at $1.32/kg) while another passenger weighing 60 kg and travelling without luggage would pay US$79.20 for the same flight. Langton defended the system to CBS News, saying, “An airline only has weight to sell. That’s the product. And we’re asking people to buy as much weight as they need.” Samoa Air reports a 20 per cent increase in revenues since the program was introduced.

Since the dawn of modern commercial aviation with the introduction of the jet age, the “average” weight of North American men and women has increased by 15 per cent. Maybe this isn’t a weighty concern at the upper end of the market where wide-body aircraft can accommodate wide-body clientele with relative ease, but it is a growing concern in the domestic market where smaller aircraft leave less wiggle-room.

I say this after being privy to a conversation between the pilots of a Dash 8-100 and ground handlers that led to a mother and her young son being taken off the flight. There is something about hearing the word “overweight” when you realize that it is in reference to the aircraft you are sitting in that gets your undivided attention. The weight of the two who were taken off was otherwise insignificant, but it must have been enough to get us under the magic number. You might imagine how much attention I paid to every second of our takeoff, but the fact that you are reading this now is evidence that someone did indeed know what they were doing.


Paul Dixon is freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.