Air New Zealand just announced that it will be asking more than 10,000 international travelers to hop onto a scale as part of a “weight survey” that will run until July 2.
Passengers on certain international flights will be asked to step on a scale at the entrance to the gate lounge for flights departing from Auckland International Airport between May 29 and July 2, 2023. According to the airline, the survey “is essential to the safe and efficient operation of the aircraft” and is a requirement put forth by New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority.
“We know stepping on the scales can be daunting,” Alastair James, Air New Zealand’s load control improvement specialist, said in a statement about the new measure, addressing some of the discomfort air travelers may feel upon being asked to submit their weight.
“We want to reassure our customers there is no visible display anywhere. No one can see your weight—not even us! It’s completely anonymous,” added James.
Under the Civil Aviation Authority’s rules, airlines can estimate average passenger weight by conducting routine surveys or they can recognize the standard weight that’s set by the authority—which is 190 pounds for people 13 and over, including carry-on luggage, the Associated Press reports. The authority last changed the average passenger weight in 2004, increasing it from 170 pounds.
However, New Zealanders are getting heavier, the AP reported, noting that the most recent national health survey put the adult obesity rate at 34 percent, up from 31 percent a year earlier. And childhood obesity rates increased to 13 percent, up from 10 percent a year earlier.
This isn’t the first time Air New Zealand has asked customers to weigh in. The airline conducted a similar survey for domestic flights in 2021.
“Before each take-off, the pilot needs to know the weight and balance of the loaded aircraft,” Air New Zealand said in a statement.
According to the airline, getting on the scale is voluntary “and by weighing in, you’ll be helping us to fly you safely and efficiently.”
It’s “an operational necessity at times to recalibrate the average data that airlines use in their calculations of required fuel uplift,” John Grant, a partner with aviation consulting group Midas Aviation, told AFAR.
He added that when Air New Zealand first started nonstop services from New York City, “they had some initial challenges with the aircraft range and payload, leaving either bags or passengers behind on some occasions.
“I suspect this survey and weighing of passengers is part of their ongoing research around the issue and is nothing more sinister than good practice,” said Grant.
Will U.S. airlines start weighing passengers, too?
In 2019, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an advisory on aircraft weight and balance control as an update to a 2005 advisory on the topic. According to the FAA, airlines have used average passenger and baggage weights to calculate their weight and balance for many years.
“However, differences between the actual weight of passengers and bags and the average weight of passengers and bags can occur when using average weights,” the FAA noted.
For large cabin aircraft, which constitute the majority of commercial airplanes, the FAA advises that if an operator determines that the standard average weights may not accurately reflect passenger and baggage weights for certain routes or regions, “the operator should conduct a survey”—not unlike the one currently underway at Air New Zealand.
And in fact, that’s exactly what some airlines do. Hawaiian Airlines began conducting a passenger weight survey for flights between Honolulu and Pago Pago in American Samoa on June 5, airline spokesperson Alex Da Silva told AFAR.
“While this is a new survey, it’s not a new practice as we have historically conducted similar surveys in American Samoa and other markets, in accordance with FAA requirements,” explained Da Silva.
The current FAA standards, which are based on data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have established that the average weight for an adult passenger plus carry-on luggage is 190 pounds in the summer and 195 pounds in the winter; that’s up from the previous averages of 170 pounds in the summer and 175 pounds in the winter (the numbers include 10 additional pounds for winter clothing and 5 additional pounds for summer clothing).
For airlines that feel these averages don’t accurately reflect the reality on their aircraft, the FAA recommends that they conduct a survey to get a better read on passenger and baggage weight. The FAA notes that the survey should be conducted at airports that represent at least 15 percent of an airline’s daily departures, that passengers should be selected at random, and that their privacy should be protected—“the scale readout should remain hidden from public view,” the FAA stated, adding, “An operator should ensure that any passenger weight data collected remains confidential.”
So should we expect to see more U.S. airlines pulling out the scale for passengers? Not necessarily, says Gary Leff travel expert with the View from the Wing blog, who wrote about the issue in 2021.
“I do not expect broad weighing of passengers,” Leff wrote in an email sent to AFAR. “Basically airlines use averages for passenger weight and every so often they need to evaluate whether those make sense. And they can usually rely on CDC data. But some cities and routes will diverge from those averages.”
Leff said that the weight issue “matters more for small planes—[because] small passenger numbers are more likely to diverge from statistical averages.”
Why airline passenger weight matters
If an aircraft is forced to handle excessive weight, that could compromise its fuel capacity, cruising speed, maneuverability, and takeoff and landing capabilities, the FAA reports. This is why the issue of passenger weight crops up from time to time—with the question largely circling the same topic, whether what has been established as the industry standard for average or maximum passenger weight continues to be a reliable figure that airlines can use, or whether that number needs to be adjusted.
“Compliance with the weight and balance limits of any aircraft is critical to flight safety. Operating above the maximum weight limitation compromises the structural integrity of an aircraft and adversely affects its performance,” the FAA stated.
In November 2022, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) released the results of a study that aimed to “survey and obtain the average weight of passengers.” The survey followed a similar analysis conducted by EASA in 2008 that found that the average weight for male and female passengers and their checked baggage had increased. The 2008 study concluded that a survey should be conducted again within 10 years (or 13 as it were) to verify whether the average weight of the European population had gone up again.
Interestingly, the results of the 2022 EASA report (which was based on a 2021 survey conducted at six airports in Europe) found that there was no significant change in the mean masses for passengers when compared to the 2008 study.