I read this editorial by Peter Singer the other day. Read it, then come back. [Actually, see the note below.] Take your time; I’ll make some coffee.
Okay, you’re back? What do you think?
For me, this is the crux of the article —
Webber suggests that airlines set a standard passenger weight, say, 165 pounds. If a passenger weighs 220 pounds, a surcharge would be charged to cover the extra fuel costs. For a passenger who is 55 pounds overweight, the surcharge on a Sydney-London return ticket would be $29. A passenger weighing just 110 pounds would get a discount of the same amount.
Another way to achieve the same objective would be to set a standard weight for passengers and luggage, and then ask people to get on the scales with their luggage. That would have the advantage of avoiding embarrassment for those who do not wish to reveal their weight.
Friends with whom I discuss this proposal often say that many obese people cannot help being overweight — they just have a different metabolism from the rest of us. But the point of a surcharge for extra weight is not to punish a sin, whether it is levied on baggage or on bodies. It is a way of recouping from you the true cost of flying you to your destination, rather than imposing it on your fellow passengers. [emphasis mine]
An increase in the use of jet fuel is not just a matter of financial cost; it also implies an environmental cost, as higher greenhouse-gas emissions exacerbate global warming. It is a minor example of how the size of our fellow citizens affects us all. When people get larger and heavier, fewer of them fit onto a bus or train, which increases the costs of public transportation. Hospitals now must order stronger beds and operating tables, build extra-large toilets, and even install extra-large refrigerators in their morgues — all adding to their costs.
I’m still mulling over my position. On the one hand, I don’t have a prejudice about overweight people. Heck, some of my favorite people are overweight. That said, I worry about them and their health because I want them around for a long time.
But on the other hand, I also worry about the environment and the consequences of our collective actions.
People who overpack are already paying a luggage surcharge, so what’s the difference?
Bad drivers pay more for car insurance. Smoke detectors lower your homeowners rates. Properly maintaining your car avoids costly repairs and keeps it running in tiptop shape, much the same way my healthy diet and exercise has served to keep me in tiptop shape over the years.
Regardless of the philosophical question involved, as a practical matter, how would the airlines create such a system?
Would it be self-reporting? Just another box to fill in along with your birthdate, full name, and frequent flyer number?
Would you simply reserve a seat, hold it with your credit card and then pay upon check-in, like when you book a hotel room?
Or would it be more like renting a car? Unclear and way more than you expected when you arrive at your final destination. I picture an angry mob trying to leave the glassed-in walls of the airport, held back by obscure and hidden fees; Grandma and Disneyland beckoning just … out … of … reach.
Or would the airlines hire a bunch of high school mathletes to figure out the actual cost to fly a fully-loaded plane from Point A to Point B, divided by the number of seats, multiplied by the percentage of profit required to keep the airline in business?
You’d need them to be high school mathletes, btw, because they’re still good at story problems. If Becky wants to travel from Denver to Toronto (“just like NYC but without all the stuff!“) with four pairs of shoes in her carry-on bag — one of which is her pair of sassy cowboy boots — and she just ate a huge plate of lasagne, but she recently got her hair cut, what would be a fair price? Now, solve for the return trip where her hair is longer, she’s eaten more fish than lasagne, she broke the heel of a sandal, and bought souvenirs. Now, solve for Becky entering the Toronto Marathon. [Ha. That’s a trick question. “Entering” doesn’t mean running. That’s how Becky rolls.]
So, what do you think? Should we all be paying the true cost of getting us from one place to another? Should we save the environment as well as ourselves? How would you create such a system to make it efficient and fair? But most importantly, aren’t you glad I’m not your math teacher?
[Note: I find this hilarious. I wrote this blog post a while back and forgot to publish it so when I noticed it this morning, I went back to check the link. The editorial wasn’t there any longer. but I got this helpful message: