FAA tells carriers to plan on heavier travelers for flight calculations
The weight of the average air traveler and carry-on items now tips the
scales at almost 200 pounds, a big part of the reason the airlines have
gone on crash diets that include shedding magazines, seat phones and
even life vests from some aircraft.
In response to the supersizing of the American lifestyle and government
surveys showing that airline passengers are getting heavier, the Federal
Aviation Administration effective Thursday has revised guidelines used
by the airlines to calculate the weight and center of gravity of planes
Passenger bulge and the belongings people schlep on trips have become
such a weighty problem that some airlines cut out a row of seats on
smaller commuter aircraft, and they often load less cargo into the belly
of the planes, eating away at revenue in an industry struggling to
survive. In addition, airlines face soaring fuel costs because of record
The new statistics also suggest that more women are having as much
trouble as some men in squeezing into closely spaced airline seats.
"Maybe instead of just using those [metal boxes] at the gates to limit
carry-on bags to certain sizes, the airlines need to have a people-sizer
with a sign asking, `Do you fit into this?"' said Dave Grotto, a
registered dietician with the American Dietetic Association in Chicago.
Obesity among adults has risen significantly in the United States over
the last 20 years. Thirty percent of adults 20 and older--more than 60
million people--are obese, according to the National Center for Health
The FAA's updated guidelines, used to calculate an aircraft's total
load, are essential to determining a plane's center of gravity, takeoff
speed, the amount of fuel to carry and other flight characteristics.
Thursday is the deadline for the airlines to factor in the new passenger
weight standards, although virtually every carrier has done so already.
The airlines also have gone leaner by jettisoning non-essential cabin
items because of high fuel prices--heavier planes burn more fuel--and
recent accidents involving small commuter planes that were overloaded.
Excessive weight in the back of a US Airways Express plane, along with
maintenance issues, were blamed for the crash of the commuter jet
shortly after takeoff on Jan. 8, 2003, in Charlotte, N.C., the National
Transportation Safety Board concluded. All 21 people aboard the Beech
Still, the new FAA weight standards don't mean passengers will be asked
to hoist themselves aboard baggage scales at airline ticket counters.
Nor will they be subjected to embarrassing comments about their
waistlines from airport security screeners asking whether a stranger had
packed their bags.
But two years after Southwest Airlines started enforcing an existing
rule of charging extra-large passengers for two seats, other airlines
are increasingly focusing on bottoms and bottom lines.
The new FAA standards increase the average adult passenger and carry-on
bag weight to 190 pounds in the summer and 195 pounds in the winter--up
from 170 pounds and 175 pounds, respectively. The numbers include an
extra 10 pounds for heavier clothing in winter and 5 pounds for clothing
in summer. Both scenarios include a 16-pound allowance for personal
items and carry-on bags, up from 10 pounds previously.
Women passengers in particular are flying heavier since the last
revisions in the standards were made in the mid-1990s.
The FAA told the airlines to hike the allowance for the average weight
of female passengers and their carry-ons from 145 pounds to 179 pounds
in the summer, and from 150 pounds to 184 pounds in the winter.
The average weights for male passengers with carry-ons were increased
185 pounds in the summer to 200 pounds, and from 190 pounds to 205
pounds in winter.
For children ages 2 to 12, the weight estimates were raised slightly,
from 80 pounds for both summer and winter to 82 pounds in summer and 87
pounds in winter.
The FAA advised the airlines to adjust their calculations based on
different sizes of aircraft, particularly on flights where more than 60
percent of the passengers are males.
"Each commercial airline is required to have a weight and balance
program that includes procedures for determining that its aircraft are
properly loaded. The FAA is increasing its oversight by safety
inspectors to verify compliance," said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham
The majority of weight on an aircraft does not come from the passengers
or cargo, but rather fuel. In some cases, planes carry only as much fuel
as is needed to reach a destination, plus a reserve in case the flight
must be diverted to another airport. But airline economics often dictate
that jetliners carry excess fuel to avoid filling up at airports where
the prices and taxes are higher.
Airline experts say it's no coincidence that in-flight meal service has
been scaled back dramatically.
"Free meals were eliminated in coach as a cost-cutting move. But one of
the side benefits is that you are carrying less weight on the plane,"
said Basil Barimo, vice president of operations and safety at the Air
Transport Association, which represents the major carriers.
"Heavy food carts that add hundreds of extra pounds to a flight have
been replaced by a handful of boxed lunches offered for purchase," he
Grotto, the dietician, says it is a "blessing in disguise" that the
airlines are feeding fewer passengers because most of the food served
aboard planes is neither heart-healthy nor low-fat.
"I spend a lot of time encouraging my clients who travel to brown-bag
Grotto said. "Bring your own fruits and veggies along with plenty of
water to stay hydrated. Skip the complimentary pretzel snacks, which are
high in glycemia, and eat an apple."