National Eating Disorders Association

Charging Airline Passengers By Weight is a Terrible Idea

Maggi Flaherty

This week, CNN reported on a recent proposal that airlines charge passengers based on their body weight in order to reduce fuel cost. The proposals were conceived by economist Dr. Bharat P. Bhatta, associate professor of economics at Sogn og Fjordane University College, Norway and recently published in the Journal of Revenue and Pricing Management.

Three “pay-as-you-weigh” models being suggested are calculated on total weight, including:

     1.  Luggage and body weight
     2.  A base fare plus fee for being over limit or discount for being under limit
     3.  A high/low average base price with a surcharge and discount for any variances

We know that we have made headway in increasing awareness of eating disorders, and that many people now understand they are serious, life-threatening illnesses. However, the misguided policy suggestions of Dr. Bhatta underscore the importance of continuing to educate the public on the complexities of eating disorders and the effects of weight discrimination. Dr. Bhatta was quoted in the CNN piece saying that his proposals, “may provide significant benefits to airlines, passengers and society at large.” 

When Dr. Bhatta claims that the move would provide a significant benefit to airlines, I can only assume that he is likely referring to perceived savings in fuel costs. However, this fails to account for the human cost of such a controversial policy.  

Body shaming and weight discrimination are far too common in our culture— a culture that continues to narrowly define beauty and fails to adequately portray the diversity of our society in media. As obesity rates have crept up in the United States, so has the “war on obesity” intensified, often using tactics that have left many feeling like it is really an assault on people in larger bodies.  This policy recommendation makes it sound as though it is acceptable and justifiable to discriminate against people if they have a larger body size, and provide bonuses for people with anorexia.

Stigmatizing larger bodies does not provide “significant benefits to society at large,” as Dr. Bhatta claims. In fact, weight stigma is a well-documented risk factor for depression, low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction. Dieting and body dissatisfaction are among the greatest risk factors for development of an eating disorder. Weight stigma has increased 66%* in the last decade and has been shown to increase the likelihood of engaging in unhealthy eating behaviors and lower levels of physical activity.

Ultimately, it is inappropriate and harmful to assign financial value to body size. In any healthy population sample, there will be a diverse range of shapes and sizes. Genetics are the number one determinant of a person’s shape and size, and people should be encouraged to live a healthy lifestyle that will result in their body being at a healthy weight for them.

To read more about our opposition to this policy recommendation, view our press release.

*Andreyeva T, Puhl R, Brownell KD. Changes in perceived weight discrimination among Americans: 1995- 1996 through 2004-2006. Obesity. 2008;16(5):1129-34.