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posted: 4/7/2013 6:00 AM

Packing on the pounds can be costly for travelers

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Did you hear about the weighty subject created by a small airline based in Samoa? Apparently Samoa Air figured out a way to get their pound of flesh. Literally. They've started charging travel fees by the pound -- both body and baggage are figured into the cost of a ticket.

This isn't new. Small commuter carriers often have strict weight-control policies. Several years ago, while traveling on a commuter aircraft in Costa Rica, I tipped the scale by an extra 5 pounds. It meant shedding a hairdryer and a couple of books. But weight had no effect on ticket price.

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Even on larger carriers, the airlines have strict rules on weight distribution. Occasionally seats will be blocked off, due to heavy cargo or weight balance. And on some aircraft, there are strict rules about where the in-aisle carts can be stowed for takeoffs and landings. And yet, the airlines make no adjustment for where a 100-pound man might be sitting.

But it's not just a safety issue. Because of the obesity epidemic facing the whole world, it puts an additional load on the airlines, which requires them to burn more fuel. So our bottom lines have a huge effect on the airline's bottom line.

Sometimes this has caused ridiculous decisions. In 2006, an airline in China asked its passengers to use the airport restrooms before boarding the flight. Their reasoning was it would reduce the weight of passengers and bathroom breaks at 35,000 feet require extra fuel. So to help keep the airline flush, they asked their passengers to flush before boarding. I suspect that some passengers were flush with anger. But I digress.

It's not just the airlines that feel these growing pains. Recently, on a flight from San Francisco to Chicago, Nina Hunt was seated between two men that looked like Suma wrestlers. She was pinched so tightly between them she felt like she was in a straight jacket.

"I asked a flight attendant if I could move," she said, but the aircraft was completely full. "Anyone willing to trade seats with me would have belonged in a straitjacket."

Most airlines have a policy that requires passengers who can't fit in their seats to purchase a second seat, but it's based on personal judgment and rarely happens. And when it does, it sometimes turns into a headache for the airline. A few years ago, Southwest Airlines required a passenger to purchase a second seat. The passenger blamed it on racial prejudice and took the airline to court.

Before every flight, the airline estimates the total weight based on actual cargo weight and an estimated passenger weight based on averages. Because our population is growing in more ways than one, the weight tables have been readjusted, but not necessarily enough.

So Samoa Air may have the right idea. By basing airline fees on weight, requiring an extra seat would no longer be an arbitrary issue, and it might encourage all travelers to lighten up.

• Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached via email at gailtodd@aol.com.

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