Passengers weigh on airlines
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 before flight.

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 oil prices.

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 Statistics.

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 1900D died.

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 from
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 Cory.

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 said.

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 it,"
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."
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