Fat airfares – what’s fair?

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OK here it is for real at last. We’ve been talking about it for a long time long. The whole airline business comes down to dollars and sense. It’s competitive, and every extra kilo costs extra fuel and aircraft wear and maintenance. Business is business, someone has to pay, and it really comes down to the customer in the end. If you are fat, you should pay more. You’ve eaten too much and moved too little. You gluttonous sloth, you should have tried harder.

Samoa Air now charges by the kilo. You’re an undernourished kid, cool – its very cheap. You’re an obese adult with a bit of luggage. Get you credit card ready. Hopefully it won’t be declined. Hopefully you haven’t put on any weight when they check/weigh you in.

On first pass, as a lean member of society, I agree with Samoa Air. I want to pay less because I weigh less. Why should I subsidise some 200 kg super beast?

And, Samoan Air isn’t really the first to do this. The reality for many morbidly obese people is that there is no way they can travel on a conventional commercial aircraft in a single seat. They end up having to pay double to fit themselves in. It’s simple physics right? No way to fit an incompressible mass into the volume of that seat.

OK, so what this really comes down to is what I want to spend the next few blogs and more on. What is obesity? Why does it happen? Why has it spiraled out of control everywhere? Who should be responsible for fixing this problem? How do we fix it? Is it even possible to fix it?

Back to Samoa Air. Their CEO describes it as a positive health promotion strategy. “This is the fairest way of travelling,” he told ABC Radio. “There are no extra fees in terms of excess baggage or anything – it is just a kilo is a kilo.

“When you get into the Pacific standard weight is substantially higher [than in south-east Asia] but it can be quite diverse. People generally are becoming much more weight conscious. That’s a health issue in some areas. It has raised the awareness of weight.”

Really? A health promotion strategy? Seriously? If only they knew that weight was an issue then they’d be thinner? I doubt there is anyone who wakes up and wants to remain obese. Has anyone seriously ever woken up and said to themselves “today is another day to get fat, bring it on!”

The debate centers on whether people are fat because they eat too much and move to little. This is conventional obesity wisdom, that a calorie is a calorie, and the only way to become obese is to eat too much. By definition, you cannot defeat the laws of thermodynamics. Therefore obesity is caused by gluttony and sloth. The cure therefore is obvious, raise awareness, tell people to get off their arse (move more) and eat less. Problem solved.

This is what drives most of public health effort around obesity, as well as the commercial and ethical response.

Except, we’ve already thought of that in public health, and it doesn’t work.

It doesn’t work, because it’s wrong. Straight wrong. The real problem is more complex and deserves your attention. It deserves your attention because no matter how lean you are, you too will at some point in your life have trouble controlling your weight. You will almost certainly have your life affected because others close to you struggle with their weight and the chronic disease being obese brings with it.

Let’s put out the alternative hypothesis. Obesity is a disease of excess fat accumulation. It’s a metabolic disorder, or at least metabolic dysfunction. Sure, gluttony and sloth are there. But they are symptoms, not causes. This metabolic dysfunction is caused by hormones. Those hormones are complex, but primarily relate to insulin and leptin.

Put simply, when insulin is raised by excessive loads of simple, refined carbohydrates you turn off fat burning and promote fat storage. Insulin blocks leptin – the off switch in the brain. Insulin down-regulates dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter in another part of the brain. You think you are starving, you crave more, and you move less. Gluttony and sloth symptoms, not causes. All extra energy is stored as fat. You can’t burn fat. You feel lethargic and tired. Your body goes into storage mode. It’s a great mode if you are harvesting late summer and have a winter or famine to survive.

We are coming back to this mechanism in way more detail in later blogs, don’t fret!

So here’s my bottom line. Obesity isn’t the fault of the individual. It’s the fault of the food supply. It’s the fault of bogus dietary guidelines that promote low fat, high carb diets. It’s the fault of society as a whole and we need to deal with it with science that hits the mark.

Science to date in nutrition hasn’t hit the mark. More to come on that too.

So that’s the debate. How do we deal with obesity? Samoa, one of the fattest countries in the world has started by putting some of the burden on the victims, not the perpetrators.

Am I right? What do others think? Here’s a reaction from a good friend of mine today. He’s very well educated and a great thinker.

MCI am not so sure there is anything weird in this. Now days, user pays underlies almost every aspect of our lives – and certainly every aspect of discretionary private spending (with limited exceptions such as where it is economically rational for a company to charge customers on the basis of a cross-subsidisation methodology). With any air transport, weight is everything – the more something weighs, the more fuel gets burnt, the more it costs. We accept that in the context of cargo. Why not people? Because it is “unfair”? Really? Airlines work out fares based on average weight. Any given passenger is either above the line or below it. If you are below it, you are subsidising those who are above it; if above it, you are being subsidised. It makes no sense to say that big people are being punished or treated unfairly if they are charged a fare that reflects the greater cost to the airline to transport them. What is unfair is that those passengers who are below the line have to pay more to travel than they otherwise would have to because there are fat people who also want to travel.”

From the NZ Herald

Absolutely, but as long as you get the equivalent seating space to go with the cost. You pay more, you get more.”

and

“Being attacked by an obesity expert and community leaders as insensitive and lame……

if people want to use those word’s ‘insensitive and lame’ they are just enabling obese people to think that being overweight is ok, and it’s not, it’s unhealthy… it’s nothing else but just plain unhealthy.

You go Samoa airlines you rock. It is a good thing to pay by weight….. you have to if you are posting a parcel don’t you? BTW I am a few kilos overweight.”

I had trouble finding anyone except the “lame obesity experts” sticking up for the fatties. Look, obesity is a massive issue (pun intended). It’s something we haven’t been able to sort. The science is becoming increasingly obvious, but the practice of helping people isn’t doing the business. It’s time for a new approach. Let’s see what actually works.

Stay with the blog and we’ll find some solutions that help us be the best we can be.

One comment

  1. The thing is that without this policy, to my knowledge, no airline ever weighed passengers, so charging for excess baggage is partly a rort perpetrated on the basis of the maximum weight a plane can purportedly carry. However they dont weigh the 200 odd pieces of cargo they call passengers… So is it really about thw weight the plane can carry versus speed of fuel burn? I dont recall getting a discount on a half full flight because we caused the plane to burn less fuel.

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Richard David Feinman

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