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Heavy passengers to pay more on Samoa Air

Samoa Air uses small planes.

Samoa Air, a tiny regional airline in the South Pacific, is doing what most in the industry deem unthinkable: charging passengers according to their weight.

Chief executive officer Chris Langton acknowledges that the move raises questions of discrimination against heavier fliers, but he says it's simply a matter of fairness and ensuring that the planes are carrying the optimal weight of passengers and luggage.

"Not only can we be more efficient, but it's also a fair system of distributing the cost," Mr. Langton said by phone from Apia, Samoa's largest city. "Once people are acquainted with the reasoning behind it, those sorts of problems [of discrimination] seem to evaporate. In fact, the passengers become interested in what it is and how it works, and they can pretty quickly recognize that it is a very, very fair system."

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When booking a flight, passengers submit their personal weight and estimated baggage weight. Fliers are also then weighed at the airport. If the number on the scale is much more than what the passenger said, the airline reserves the right to charge more. It's delicate matter, Mr. Langton said.

The weight-based airfare, in place since November, varies widely depending on the flight. Passengers can pay from about 36 cents a kilogram on a short 30-kilometre flight within Samoa to about $1.07 a kilogram on a 320-km run to neighbouring South Pacific islands. A calculator on the airline's website helps to determine the airfare.

It's not a practice that is likely to catch on soon with larger Canadian carriers.

"This would never fly, so to speak. It could never be considered fair in any way and isn't something we would ever consider," said Robert Palmer, a spokesman for WestJet Airlines Ltd.

Porter Airlines has not considered it at all, spokesman Brad Cicero said, adding that the Canadian Transportation Agency has moved in the opposite direction to ensure equal treatment for all travellers.

Samoa Air operates very small airplanes. Knowing the weight on board is important. Passengers walk up to the propeller-driven, nine-to-10-seat Britten-Norman BN2A aircraft and even tinier Cessna 172 parked on the short runway under the Samoan sun. Luggage is brought up by a pushcart and loaded by hand, like loading the trunk of a car.

During the flight, pilots can turn around and talk to passengers, while pointing out the South Pacific views. It's an entirely different experience than flying on a major airline, even though Mr. Langton wants to use this pricing model in his plans to expand his business to include flights to Hawaii and Australia. Samoa Air has been in operation for a year.

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Weight-based airfares have been in the news lately. An academic paper by Bharat Bhatta of Sogn og Fjordane University College in Norway published in the Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management received some media attention. In the paper, he argued that the best way would be to set an upper and lower weight limit, with those below receiving a discount and those above paying a surcharge.

But as Mr. Langton noted, in the office of his small operation, "It's still a topic staff have to careful with, as you would."

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About the Author

Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More


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