Should Airlines Start Voluntarily Weighing Passengers Before Flights?

There’s no easy way around the issue of passenger weight when it comes to safely balancing an aircraft’s load. Indeed, Simple Flying has reported on several incidents where (improper) weight and balance played a role. The FAA has suggested that airlines can weigh their passengers to obtain more accurate calculations. But should this be done?

Should Airlines Start Voluntarily Weighing Passengers Before Flights?
Accurate weight measurements and proper balancing are necessary for the safe operation of an aircraft.  Photo: Getty Images

Why weight and balance matters

According to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), an overloaded or improperly balanced aircraft will require more power and greater fuel consumption to maintain flight. It also says that the stability and controllability of the aircraft will be seriously affected.

“Lack of appreciation for the effects of weight and balance on the performance of aircraft, particularly in combination with such performance reducing factors as high-density altitude, frost or ice on the wings, low engine power, severe or uncoordinated maneuvers, and emergency situations, is a prime factor in many accidents.” -FAA Publication “Weight and Balance-P-8740-05”

Simple Flying has covered several incidents regarding weight and balance, including an Alitalia A320 tail strike caused by an imbalance of passengers, and an underpowered takeoff due to the improper calculation of passenger weight.

Should Airlines Start Voluntarily Weighing Passengers Before Flights?
The FAA published guidance on weighing passengers in 2019. Photo:

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Using data averages vs. weighing passengers

Most commercial air travel these days involves airlines “guesstimating” passenger weight using listed averages. Weights vary from place to place, with an EASA document outlining mean passenger weights by season, purpose, and gender. For example, a male business traveler in the winter has a mean weight of 88.4kg, while a male leisure traveler in the summer is listed as 81.6kg.

But of course, this is a ballpark estimation. If many particularly heavy passengers were to travel together, the weight calculations using averages would be less accurate. Changes in the general population over time might also affect the accuracy of using averages. That’s why Air New Zealand weighed its passengers last month, with the country’s Civil Aviation Authority requiring that airlines hold a ‘weight week’ once every five years to recalculate average passenger weights.

Should Airlines Start Voluntarily Weighing Passengers Before Flights?
Weighing passengers and their baggage would provide the most accurate data for aircraft weight. Of course, this can be a sensitive issue for some. Photo: Getty Images

As part of Advisory Circular 120-27F titled “Aircraft Weight and Balance Control,” the FAA offers two suggestions to determine the actual weight of passengers:

  1. Weighing each passenger on a scale before boarding the aircraft or,
  2. Asking each passenger his or her weight. 

Regarding option #2, the advisory circular also suggests that “an operator should add to this asked (volunteered) weight at least 10 pounds to account for clothing. An operator should increase this allowance for clothing on certain routes or during certain seasons, if appropriate.”

So should airlines be weighing passengers?

Our own personal insecurities and vulnerabilities around bodyweight aside, it would seem like a wise decision to try and obtain the most accurate weight reading possible for every flight. More accurate data would ensure an aircraft is balanced properly while potentially saving fuel on ‘particularly light’ flights (particularly since carrying unnecessary fuel burns more fuel).

But of course, weighing passengers comes with a whole list of complications. From privacy concerns to potentially longer boarding times and passengers feeling publicly shamed, airlines and their check-in or gate agents would bear the brunt of public backlash.

The FAA does offer one suggestion to address privacy, saying that if an operator chooses to weigh passengers as part of a survey, they should take care to protect the privacy of passengers. “The scale readout should remain hidden from public view. An operator should ensure that any passenger weight data collected remains confidential.”

And now we pass the question off to you, should airlines start weighing passengers before flights? Let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment.