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Thursday, August 11, 2005 - Page updated at 03:20 PM

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Bottom line: Airlines recalculate their loads, thanks to heavier Americans

Chicago Tribune

Reflecting society at large, the average air traveler and carry-on items now tip the scales at almost 200 pounds, according to new data the Federal Aviation Administration is requiring U.S. airlines to use starting today to calculate the weight and center of gravity of aircraft before flight.

The new statistics also reveal that more women are having as much trouble as some men in squeezing into tightly packed airline seats.

The more than 10 pounds in added payload many passengers are carrying — along with the record fuel prices causing a financial drag — are the primary reasons airlines have gone on crash diets that include shedding magazines, seat phones, extra cans of beverages and even lift vests from some planes. Heavy cabin dividers have also been replaced with curtains on some aircraft.

Passenger bulge and the belongings people schlep on trips have become such a weighty problem that some airlines cut out a row of seats on smaller commuter aircraft, and they often load less cargo into the belly of the planes — eating away at revenue in an industry struggling to survive.

"Maybe instead of just using those (metal boxes) at the gates to limit carry-on bags to certain sizes, the airlines need to have a people-sizer with a sign asking, 'Do you fit into this?"' said Dave Grotto, a registered dietician with the American Dietetic Association in Chicago.

Flying large

Obesity among adults has risen significantly in the United States over the last 20 years. Thirty percent of adults 20 years of age and older — more than 60 million people — are obese, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The percentage of overweight children and teens has tripled since 1980.

In response to the supersizing of the American lifestyle and government surveys showing that airline passengers — women especially — are getting fatter, the FAA has updated weight-and-balance guidelines used by the airlines to calculate the total load aboard aircraft. The measurements are essential to determining a plane's center of gravity, takeoff speed, how much fuel to carry and other flight characteristics.

Today is the deadline for the airlines to factor in the new passenger weight standards, although virtually every carrier has already done so.

The airlines have also gone leaner by jettisoning nonessential cabin items because of the high fuel prices — heavier planes burn more fuel — and due to recent accidents involving small commuter planes that were overloaded.

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Still, the new FAA weight standards don't mean passengers will be asked to hoist themselves aboard baggage scales at airline ticket counters. Nor will they be subjected to embarrassing comments about their waistlines from airport security screeners asking whether a stranger had packed their bags.

But two years after Southwest Airlines started enforcing an existing rule of charging extra-large passengers for two seats, now other airlines are increasingly focusing on bottoms and bottom lines.

The new FAA standards increase the average adult passenger and carry-on bag weight to 190 pounds in the summer and 195 pounds in the winter — up from 170 pounds and 175 pounds, respectively. The numbers include an extra 10 pounds for heavier clothing in winter and 5 pounds for clothing in summer. Both scenarios include a 16-pound allowance for personal items and carry-on bags, up from 10 pounds previously.

Women in particular are flying heavier since the last revisions were made in the mid-1990s.

The FAA told the airlines to hike the allowance for the average weight of female passengers and their carry-ons from 145 pounds to 179 pounds in the summer, and from 150 pounds to 184 pounds in the winter.

The average weights for male passengers with carry-ons were increased from 185 pounds in the summer to 200 pounds, and from 190 pounds to 205 pounds in winter.

For children ages 2 to 12, the weight estimates were raised slightly, from 80 pounds for both summer and winter to 82 pounds in summer and 87 pounds in winter.

The majority of weight on an aircraft does not come from the passengers or cargo, but rather fuel. In some cases, planes carry only as much fuel as is needed to reach a destination, plus a reserve in case the flight must be diverted to another airport. But airline economics often dictate that jetliners carry excess fuel to avoid filling up at airports where the prices and taxes are higher.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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