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Airline launches in-flight 'couch' for hefty passengers

By James Durston, for CNN
June 20, 2013 -- Updated 0755 GMT (1555 HKT)
Samoa Air will introduce new extra-large seats into its planes to accommodate overweight passengers.
Samoa Air will introduce new extra-large seats into its planes to accommodate overweight passengers.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • New "couch" will combine two seats and have 14 inches of extra legroom
  • Some passengers on Samoa Air weigh up to 210 kilos (460 pounds)
  • Initiative includes ramp access to seats in place of steps

(CNN) -- Samoa Air has taken the next lunge in the debate on air travel and overweight fliers with a new extra-large seat for extra-wide passengers.

"The new seat is like a two-person couch, created from two adjacent seats without an armrest," the airline's CEO Chris Langton told CNN.

The new seat will also have 14 inches of extra legroom, created by the removal of the row in front. The initiative includes the adoption of a boarding ramp, as opposed to steps.

"Most people around 130 kilos (285 pounds) struggle to get up most steps, so we've redesigned ours into a ramp to help bigger passengers get to their seats," said Langton.

The tiny airline -- its fleet consists of three planes, each with 10 seats or fewer -- already operates the airline industry's only pay-as-you-weigh pricing scheme, which charges passengers according to their combined body and luggage weight.

It transports some of the world's biggest travelers.

A 2007 Forbes report claimed 80% of Samoans are overweight, and it's unlikely things have improved since then.

"Some of our customers top out at 210 kilos (460 pounds)," Langton said. "Many come in around 160 kilos and around 40% in the 100-130 kilo range."

Pay more get more

Langton said the move -- which will become operational in one of the airline's planes on June 26 -- is meant to offset extra costs incurred under the controversial pay-as-you-weigh plan and acts as a trial for potential implementation in other aircraft.

"Because some bigger passengers will be paying more, we want them to be comfortable," said Langton. "It's a precursor to what will happen to our 100-seater planes, which we'll start operating in three to six months."

Should overweight fliers be charged more? Samoa Air says yes.
Should overweight fliers be charged more? Samoa Air says yes.

Data on passenger weight collected by the airline since November show that for every 50 passengers they fly, three to four will weigh 160 kilos (352 pounds) or more.

The pay-as-you-weigh scheme has been criticized for condoning unhealthy eating by travelers. Langton disagrees.

"Airplanes run on weight, whether that's healthy weight or unhealthy," he said. "Our problem is putting that weight on seats and the fact that different people weigh different amounts. It's completely separate from the issue of health."

The airline recently set up a scheme with a local fitness center in which members who lose weight at the gym receive Samoa Air vouchers giving them three kilos for the price of one -- a 66% saving.

Weigh in and pay up

The airline's fee structure allows travelers to enter their approximate weight and that of their luggage and prepay based on that "guesstimate."

A Norwegian economist recently published a paper advocating the practice.

Some travelers have criticized the weight-based fare concept as a "fat tax." Others believe it's fair.

"Yes, if I am getting less than 100% of the seat I paid for, the person taking my space should have to make up the difference," a CNN.com commenter wrote.

For a tiny carrier like Samoa Air, the fare model seems reasonable, according to airline analyst Vaughn Cordle, a partner at Ionosphere Capital, a transportation investment research firm.

"For this small operation, specifically with the aircraft they fly, weight restrictions are the key practical problem they have to deal with on every flight. They have a solid business case to charge for weight," Cordle said.

But travelers are unlikely to see anything like it on a large U.S. airline, he said.

"For U.S. airlines, I think this is an issue they will not touch with a 10-foot pole because of the negative publicity and the practical purposes of weighing people at the gate."

CNN's Marnie Hunter and Katia Hetter contributed to this report

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