Thursday, June 05, 2008

Airlines may treat people like bags

Imagine two scales at the airline ticket counter, one for your bags and one for you. The price of a ticket depends upon the weight of both. That may not be so far-fetched.

"You listen to the airline CEOs, and nothing is beyond their imagination," said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, a Washington, DC-based trade group. "They have already begun to think exotically. Nothing is not under the microscope." He declined to discuss what any individual airline might be contemplating, including charging passengers based on weight.

With fuel costs almost tripling since 2000, now accounting for as much as 40% of operating expenses at some carriers, according to the ATA, airlines are cutting costs and raising revenue in ways that once were unthinkable. US Airways Group Inc. has eliminated snacks. Delta Air Lines Inc. is charging $25 for telephone reservations. AMR Corp's American Airlines last month became the first US company to charge $15 for one checked bag.

Even a cold drink may be harder to come by aloft. Singapore Airlines Ltd, whose shares have fallen 8.9% this year, is "trying to eliminate unnecessary quantities of extra water" to save weight, chief executive officer Chew Choon Seng said in an interview.

"When you hear some people talking about putting showers on their planes, that strikes me as counterintuitive," he said.

After US airlines reported combined first-quarter losses of $1.7 billion and crude oil jumped to a record $133.17 a barrel on May 21, almost double from a year earlier, fares based on a passenger's weight may be a logical step, said Robert Mann, head of R W Mann & Co, an aviation consultant based in Port Washington, New York.

"If you look at the air-freight business, that's the way they've always done it," he said. "We're getting treated like air freight when we travel by airlines, anyway."

"Laughter aside, the airlines are just in a desperate situation," said David Swierenga, president of consulting firm Aeroecon in Round Rock, Texas, who dismissed weight-based ticket sales and steep price increases as unrealistic.

Airlines have also taken shorter-term steps even if they have stopped short of weighing passengers. Japan Airlines Corp is using crockery in first-class and business-class cabins that is 20% lighter than the service items they replaced.

Southwest Airlines Co is flying slower - by 72 seconds, for example, on Houston-Los Angeles flights, which now take 3 hours 14 minutes.

That saves 8.7 gallons of fuel for each of the airline's four daily nonstops on the 1,387-mile route. Southwest comes closest to charging for weight, asking passengers to buy a second seat if their girth prevents the armrest from lowering.

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