Passengers get bigger and bigger. Now airlines must account more clearly for that.
The Federal Aviation Administration is requiring updates to the passenger and baggage weight estimates that airlines use to keep each flight within their safety limits. Each U.S. airline must submit a plan by June 12 explaining the average weights of passengers and baggage that they will use, down to phones and clothing, and how they estimated these weights. The FAA must approve each airline's plan.
Airline officials say the weight estimates used for passengers and baggage are going up between 5% and 10% over time. That can be left behind on some flights with more passengers, possibly that more baggage get bumped or more. Impact in an airplane is likelier on extremely hot days and higher above sea level when the weight an airplane can safely carry is reduced because wings won't generate as much lift. Can abound into stiff headwinds that can require more fuel?
Some airlines will instead use passenger weight and how they plan to handle the updated & revised requirements. Other say they're already taking steps to minimize stress this summer when the updated weight guidelines take effect.
There was a year's worth of preparation, says Mike Byham, director of operations engineering for American Airlines. We put a lot of work into this to make it impossible.
The FAA says it is pushing the change to make sure aircraft are loaded in accordance with a plane-manual limit. The changes increase the safety of using less air to carry overloaded fliers.
While airlines are supposed to keep up with passenger changes, the agency discovered that weight gains hadn't been updated in years.
Some airlines complain privately that the FAA won't delay the introduction of new weight standards until they get past the summer travel surge. In most summers the planes are full, bringing weight closer to limits at a time when it's harder to rebook passengers.
Carriers say airports in hot areas like Phoenix and even Salt Lake City have had air-travel disruptions in heat waves, and even hot spots like Salt Lake City and Denver are areas of concern.
In addition, this summer could prove particularly difficult to adapt to the new standards of industry. Airlines have a hard time estimating passenger demand and likely no-shows as passengers return to flying after the peak of the pandemic. Not all of their planes are back in service, although some have arrived again. One remedy for higher weights is to substitute larger planes in high-altitude markets in summer, but airlines have less flexibility to do that this summer.
Delta and United say that they are developing plans to minimize impact and declined to comment further. Southwest and JetBlue declined to discuss passenger weight at all.
Alaska says it will increase the average estimates that it has used for adults since 2013 by 7 pounds, 2 pounds for checked bags and 4 pounds for checked luggage, but declined to discuss more detail. There will be very negligible impacts on Alaska routes during long-haul conditions, an Alaska spokeswoman says.
Passengers won't be on scales stepping. Airlines can use the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention health surveys in order to estimate their typical passenger behavior. The FAA says airlines would add 5 pounds to personal clothing and clothing in summer and 10 pounds in winter.
Airlines do need to conduct their own survey for checked and carry-on bags — there's no FAA or CDC guidance on that.
Some airlines have already had their plans approved - on Tuesday American enacted the new standards. The average flight from American has normally 1 to 8 men, and carries at least some children. So the average passenger weight for the world's largest airline is now 182 pounds in summer and 187 pounds in winter, an 8pound increase for both seasons. Carry-on bags will be calculated as 5 pounds heavier and every checked bag will weigh 6 pounds heavier.
Airlines are supposed to adjust for markets that have atypical passenger populations, like flights with far more men than women, and charter flights with sports teams that may have several large passengers.
To estimate the weight of luggage, American weighed passenger bags in Dallas and Charlotte over five weeks earlier this year and counted what all passengers carried at that two hubs to several hundred flights.
The higher average weights could add more than 35,000 pounds to weight-and-balance calculations for a fully loaded 737 with 172 passengers. This is significant — close to what 500 gallons of jet fuel weighs.
Mr. Byham says American has already accounted for the changes and is working to get bigger aircraft on flights that could have a weight problem and limit ticket sales if necessary. Most flights had enough capacity to handle the higher loads.
The client will see absolutely no change, he says. We know what type of impact we are looking at, so all you have to do is plan ahead.
The latest data from the CDC National Center for Health Statistics, published in January based on a 2015-2018 survey of average female weight is projected at 199.8 pounds and the median male weight at 170.8 pounds. In 2005, the last time the FAA required airlines to update, the same survey found that people weighed on average about 5% less: men averaged 190.4 pounds and women 163.3.
For the most part, the seats have remained the same width, but legroom has shrunk. Seat manufacturers have tried to make seats wider by adding several fractions of an inch to squeeze out the seating gaps. Also, as thicker material has been used in seats and more rows are added to flights, the tightly packed cabin can feel more enticing to passengers with heads closer together.
Whenever not empty, every aircraft has a basic weight — the structure, engines, seats, coffee makers, avionics and anything else that's always on board. From then on there's a maximum weight for takeoff not to be exceeded in order to make sure the plane could fly. The difference is the useful load — the variables. That includes fuel, cargo and passengers.
How weight is distributed on a plane also affects safety and performance. Before the takeoff, an airline dispatcher calculates the center of gravity for airplane and makes sure that it is within the allowed envelope for that aircraft.
Although many countries follow the FAA's lead on safety and regulation, and thus may change their own standard weight requirements, some take a more direct approach. The Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand requires Air New Zealand to hold a weigh week every five years to keep the average weight estimate current. The most recent weigh-week was held in April.