Airline passengers have gotten heavier, but companies are unlikely to weigh individual passengers at the check-in desk to help keep an aircraft within its safety limits, two industry experts told Insider.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which regulates commercial airlines, told Insider that while weighing passengers was “an option,” most companies would use other methods.
Henry Harteveldt, president of travel research firm Atmosphere Research Group, told Insider that this was highly unlikely to happen.
“The airline check-in experience is not going to turn into a Weight Watchers-like scenario,” he said. “Airlines do not ask passengers how much they weigh, and they’re not about to start doing so.”
American Airlines told Insider on June 10 that its average customer now weighs 182 pounds in summer and 187 pounds in winter, an “eight-pound increase for both seasons,” a company spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Unnamed airline officials also told the Wall Street Journal that average passenger and baggage weights had risen between 5% and 10%, but did not specify over what period.
The FAA gave companies until June 12 to submit new average passenger weight estimates, a vital part of an aircraft’s weight and balance calculations needed for safe travel.
The agency gives airlines options for how to calculate passenger weights, including weighing customers before boarding, or by asking them to volunteer their weight – in this case, the FAA’s advisory document says that operators “should make a reasonable estimate” of a passengers’ weight if they believe that it had been “understated.”
But Helane Becker, airlines analyst and managing director of investment bank Cowen, told Insider that she doesn’t see this occurring in the US.
She said the trend in rising passengers weights is not new, and that she expects to see “airlines adjusting charges for overweight bags.”
“It is likely they will accept less mail and other small packages to be able to stay under weight limits,” Becker said.
Other FAA options include conducting random passenger weight surveys, or using official population weight estimates from the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
American and Southwest Airlines told Insider that they use figures from the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to calculate weight and balance.
The most recent NHANES published in January shows the average US adult male weighs 199.8 pounds, up 4.1 pounds from the previous report in 2016, while the average US woman weighs 170.8 pounds, an increase of 2.3 pounds over the same period.
American also told Insider that there would be no changes to its customer experience, despite the revised weight estimates.
Industry body Airlines for America, which speaks on behalf of ten major airlines, said in an emailed statement it didn’t “anticipate there will be any noticeable changes” for customers.
Delta Air Lines said they had developed an “implementation plan” to minimize any impact on customers, although it did not share any details.
Alaska Airlines told Insider that the impact of weight changes would be “negligible” and would only “effect select long-haul routes during headwind conditions.”
United Airlines declined to share their FAA weight submission with Insider. JetBlue did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.
JetBlue Airways and Alaska Airlines are mid-tier US carriers, sandwiched between the big four – American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines – and the ultra-low-cost carriers.
JetBlue primarily serves the East Coast, with its main hub in New York, while Alaska serves the West Coast with its main hub in Seattle.
The two have rebounded quicker than most to pre-pandemic offerings, such as offering in-flight drinks and snacks, we well as normal boarding and seating procedures
But that doesn’t mean they aren’t still taking precautions to protect flyers.
I flew on both airlines in March on the way home from Seattle with a quick stop in Los Angeles to see how the two are handling the pandemic a year in.
The first flight of the day was on Alaska from Seattle to Los Angeles, one of the airline’s busiest routes. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was among the busiest I had seen, but Alaska had a good setup of health and safety measures at check-in.
Hand sanitizer stations were scattered throughout the terminal and placed next to check-in kiosks.
Social distancing floor placards guided the path towards check-in desks, which were fitted with plexiglass partitions.
The only downside was that self-serve kiosks weren’t spaced and it seemed like I was right on top of the person checking in next to me.
Ticket in hand, I headed to the gate for the quick flight down the coast. The same setup that I had seen at check-in was also at the gate with more floor placards, plexiglass partitions, and hand sanitizer stations.
So far, I was impressed. Boarding then began and Alaska placards lined the jetway reminding passengers to social distance as they wait.
Alaska doesn’t board from the back of the plane to the front and normal boarding procedures applied. First class boarded first, and so on.
Flight attendants welcomed passengers onboard the aircraft but didn’t offer anything in the way of hand sanitizer or a sanitizing wipe, as others like United and Delta are.
But the aircraft was impeccably clean, so I wasn’t worried. This was also a brand-new Boeing 737 Max that had just been delivered to the airline, so I was expecting it to be clean since it had only flown a handful of flights.
I did notice, however, that first class passengers were given sanitizing wipes at their seats. Economy passengers could request them.
My seat was 28F, a window seat in the back of the plane. And like the rest of the plane, it was spotless.
The tray table had no crumbs or stains whatsoever.
I was feeling very good about this flight and felt even better once boarded ended and my whole row was open. But in the interest of social distancing, a flight attendant put someone in the aisle seat so another row could have an open middle.
Alaska was previously blocking middle seats until January 7, the second-longest of any airline behind Delta. Flights can now be filled to capacity.
A pamphlet in the seat-back outlined Alaska’s onboard health and safety measures, which was a nice peace-of-mind reminder for skeptical passengers.
Flight attendants began the in-flight service shortly after takeoff, starting with a bag of snack mix.
But I was surprised to see the airline offering a choice of soft drink, as well. The cans are miniature but it’s better than nothing.
Flight attendants also distributed Purell wipes, and a reminder to wear a mask in between bites and sips was also printed on the napkin.
The rest of the flight continued uneventfully, with most passengers abiding by the mask rule. I didn’t see any passengers receive Alaska’s dreaded “yellow card.”
Los Angeles is a hub for JetBlue but the airline doesn’t nearly have as much space as Alaska does in Seattle. There were still plenty of protocols in place for social distancing, including floor placards, plexiglass partitions, and signage reminding travelers to wear masks.
Even the check-in kiosks were staggered and had floor placards with distancing reminders.
There were hand-sanitizing stations by the checked bag drop point.
The gate had similar measures, but no sanitizing stations.
JetBlue had stopped back-to-front boarding earlier in the month, so the normal boarding procedure was followed. The airport had installed social distancing reminders in the jetway, as well.
Flight attendants welcomed us onboard but did not offer any sanitizing wipes or hand sanitizer. I later found out that they were available but only on request.
But, as with Alaska, the aircraft was impeccably clean and I wasn’t concerned at all.
This overnight flight to New York was moderately full but empty enough that most aisles had the middle seat open. JetBlue stopped blocking middle seats in October.
My seat was 25A, a window seat towards the back of the plane.
It was spotless and completely free of stains or crumbs, a great sign for the flight ahead.
All JetBlue planes have seat-back entertainment screens, and they’re being put to good use during the pandemic with new messaging on the airline’s health and safety measures.
There was a “dos and don’ts” on what to do when flying JetBlue, including when to wear a mask and when it can be taken off.
And there were reminders not to crowd aisles.
We took off into the Los Angeles night, bound for New York, and flight attendants quickly started the in-flight snack and drink service.
A full selection of full-size soft drinks were on offer…
As well as JetBlue’s famous snacks.
The rest of the flight continued smoothly, and soon enough, it was time to land in New York.
Just like with Alaska, other passengers’ desire to get off the plane was greater than the desire to social distance.
But while walking through Terminal 5, primarily used by JetBlue, I saw more of the airline’s safety features. First, social distancing placards in the jetway…
…and a hand sanitizer station in the gate area…
Automated boarding gates…
And blocked off seats.
It was an impressive setup, on par with Alaska’s in Seattle.
The West Coast of the US stretches more than 1,000 miles with no shortage of major cities from San Diego to Seattle.
All the major US airlines serve this important region of the country but two are battling for dominance, Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines.
Alaska is based in Seattle, although its name suggests otherwise, and is a mid-tier US airline with the bulk of its operations on the West Coast.
Southwest, on the other hand, is the country’s largest low-cost carrier with a nationwide presence. And while the West Coast is an important region for the airline, it’s just one of many Southwest serves.
Both carriers have sought to grow market share on the West Coast during the pandemic. Southwest added Santa Barbara and Fresno to its California route network while Alaska has added routes from existing cities.
I flew on both airlines this year to see which one was truly the airline of the West Coast. Here’s what I found.
West Coast connectivity: Alaska serves 29 cities up and down the coast, including smaller cities like Everett, Washington; Santa Rosa, California; and Medford, Oregon.
Southwest serves 15 West Coast cities and plans to serve two more this summer. Bellingham, Washington flights will also open sometime this year.
Winner: Alaska Airlines. The airline’s connectivity between West Coast cities large and small cannot be beaten by Southwest’s existing network.
What comes with the ticket: Every Southwest ticket includes free seat selection anywhere on the plane after boarding, two checked bags, a carry-on bag, and all the onboard amenities.
Southwest has open seating so any open seat is available for passengers.
Alaska does allow free seat selection for economy but charges extra for seats close to the front and exit row seats.
Alaska, like many full-service carriers, has also embraced restrictive basic economy fares that replaced its cheapest fares. The product is generous with and limited advanced seat assignments and a free carry-on bag but flyers will have to pay more for better seats and checked bags.
Southwest doesn’t have change or cancel fees for any ticket.
Alaska has eliminated change fees but not for basic economy fares, known as “saver” fares.
Winner: Southwest Airlines. The flexibility and free extras offered by Southwest put it well and above Alaska. It’s worth noting, however, that even Alaska’s basic economy fares are more generous than many of its competitors.
Boarding: Alaska boards its aircraft in groups that are assigned based on seat location and fare class. First class boards first, followed by elite status holders, those sitting in “premium class.” Economy then boards back to front, for the most part, and basic economy flyers board dead last.
On Southwest, however, passengers are given a boarding number and group that’s determined by how early they check-in for the flight. Once on the plane, they can select any open seat.
Winner: Southwest Airlines. Alaska’s boarding process relegates basic economy passengers to the very last section while even the passenger with the cheapest ticket on Southwest has the opportunity to board earlier if they check-in at exactly 24 hours prior to departure.
Onboard amenities: Both airlines are in the process of modernizing their fleets but older aircraft remain. On Southwest, for example, I flew on the 737-700 fleet on my most recent trip and it was the furthest from modern.
But its updated aircraft have a great, modern look, as I found on flights from New York to Orlando in 2020.
Before the pandemic, however, Alaska sold meals and snack boxes while Southwest just stuck to drinks and small snacks.
Winner: Alaska Airlines.
West Coast feel: Alaska has its roots in the West Coast and that shows in its branding. The colors are vibrant, there is a focus on West Coast brands in the in-flight service, and the airline is based in Seattle.
Southwest has a generic appeal as it connects the US through bases across the country with no specific ties to the West Coast. There’s no West Coast feel.
Winner: Alaska Airlines: There’s an undeniable feeling when flying on Alaska that it’s more in tune with the West Coast vibe than Southwest.
National connectivity: Alaska is highly concentrated on the West Coast while Southwest has bases across the US.
Southwest doesn’t have the sprawling West Coast network that Alaska does but it does offer connections between most of the region’s major cities and connections to the rest of the country through its mid-continent bases in places like Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas, and Dallas.
Alaska only has hubs in the West Coast cities of Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland, requiring a stop in one of those cities before heading east. The airline does partner with airlines like American to offer mixed-airline itineraries but that could be difficult if the airlines are in two different terminals.
Winner: Southwest Airlines. Having more mid-continent bases allows for more convenient journeys with lower travel times for customers.
Business traveler amenities: Corporate travelers have different priorities than most leisure travelers and will often spend more for seats in premium cabins and access lounges.
Alaska has premium lounges in six airports, and partners with American and Qantas on lounge access for members. Southwest does not have any lounges.
Alaska’s jet aircraft also have first class cabins, the domain of the business traveling road warrior, while Southwest does not.
A special section of economy is also available on Alaska. Called “premium class,” seats in the section offer additional legroom and come with complimentary alcoholic beverages.
Alaska is also a member of the Oneworld airline alliance and Alaska’s elite status holders can use their benefits on other airlines like American and British Airways, and vice versa. Southwest is not a part of any airline alliance.
Southwest does have a special fare for business travelers, called “Business Select,” that includes extras like priority boarding and free alcoholic drinks (suspended during the pandemic).
And Southwest does have better connectivity outside of the West Coast. A business traveler in St. Louis looking to fly to New York couldn’t even choose Alaska if they wanted to.
Winner: Alaska Airlines. Business travelers have more premium amenities at their disposal on Alaska, if the choice is between Alaska and Southwest.
Airline of the West Coast: Alaska Airlines. Both airlines are incredibly similar but Alaska has more West Coast-oriented amenities to help it pull ahead of Southwest.
Alaska Airlines has been steadily expanding across the US in recent years since its acquisition of Virgin America, increasing its presence from coast to coast.
While its main sandbox is the West Coast, the airline now operates transcontinental flights from numerous East Coast cities. It’s not as big as the majors in the big four US airlines including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines, but Alaska has been getting its name out there in a big way.
Middle seats on Alaska flights were blocked until January 7, the second-longest seat-blocking tenure of a major US airline behind Delta. Now, flights can be filled nearly to capacity in economy.
Here’s what flying Alaska Airlines is like during the pandemic.
Alaska’s primary hub at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was busier than I expected when I arrived for my Friday afternoon flight to Los Angeles. As the airport’s top carrier, many of those flyers would be flying Alaska.
The entire Alaska Airlines check-in, however, had been overhauled with new safety features like plexiglass partitions at the counters…
Social distancing placards in queues…
Hand sanitizer stations…
And wipe stations in between check-in kiosks. It was an impressive start to my trip on the airline.
And before I even got to the airport, I was required to acknowledge a health agreement. Standard for most major US airlines now, I had to affirm that I haven’t tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 10 days, hadn’t been exposed to the virus in the past 10 days, and hadn’t exhibited symptoms in the past three days, in addition to agreeing to the airline’s mask policy.
The flight appeared to be largely empty and it was looking good that I’d have a row to myself. Alaska flies near-hourly between Seattle and Los Angeles so there was no shortage of flights available, even during the pandemic.
I quickly got my ticket from the kiosk and headed to the gate. I hadn’t flown on Alaska since before the pandemic when I flew from New York to LA to get In-n-Out Burger, so I was excited to fly the airline once more.
The same set of social distancing measures that I found at check-in were also at the gate, including more plexiglass partitions, hand sanitizing stations, and floor placards.
The airport also had its own social distancing agenda, blocking every other seat in the gate area with placards.
But while I had hoped for an empty flight, it turned out that this afternoon flight to Los Angeles was very popular with airline employees and standby passengers. There were at least 25 people looking to jump on board this flight, potentially thwarting my chances of an empty row.
Boarding began around 30 minutes prior to departure with Alaska following its normal boarding procedure. Customers board with their assigned group, listed on their boarding passes.
After pre-boarding, first class boards first followed by Alaska elites and those seated in “premium class.” Regular economy passengers in the back of the plane then board followed by those closer to the front. Basic economy flyers, regardless of seat location, board dead last.
More social distancing placards lined the jetway leading up to the aircraft. “Mind your wingspan” is Alaska’s slogan of choice for social distancing.
Flight attendants welcomed us as we filed into the Boeing 737 Max but nothing in the way of hand sanitizer or sanitary wipes were offered, as some other airlines are doing.
Walking past first class, however, I noticed each seat was given hand sanitizing wipes, a perk that economy class didn’t get.
I later saw on the airline’s website that they were available “on request.”
The cleaning measures truly showed. I had no concerns whatsoever about the cleanliness of the plane.
I chose seat 28F for the two-hour flight to Los Angeles, a window seat on the right side of the plane facing forward.
Everything from the seat area to the tray tables was spotless.
Alaska even had some of its new safety protocols listed in this booklet with a website link where flyers could view the full spread of measures being taken by the airline to keep passengers safe.
This flight would feature an in-flight drink and snack service with nine different hot and cold beverages on offer ranging from Coke to orange juice.
The rest of the plane slowly filled up and Alaska’s boarding procedure meant the front filled out before the back. Those boarding last would have to walk through an entire plane full of people if they were seated in the back.
Flight attendants during the boarding process continually reminded passengers that they were “obligated” to wear a face mask.
One flight attendant was also walking around with masks to give to flyers that needed.
Even the safety briefing included a reminder that wearing a mask while flying is now federal law. Passengers were asked to report any offenses to flight attendants.
The flight departed with quite a few middle seats open. Alaska doesn’t currently block middle seats in regular economy as of January 7 so having any seats open was pure luck.
Flight attendants also worked to space passengers by moving them into empty rows. The aisle seat in my row, for example, was given to a passenger that was in a crowded row.
Soon enough, we were airborne and bound for Los Angeles.
Flight attendants quickly began the in-flight service, starting with snacks.
The bag included a variety of items from pretzels to flaxseed chips.
Then the drink cart came around and gloved flight attendants distributed full beverage cans accompanied by a cup of ice and hand sanitizing wipes. Printed on the napkin was a message asking flyers to put their masks on between bites and sips.
Once the service was over, I took a walk around the plane and only found a few passengers flouting the mask rule. Compliance, for the most part, was good.
Alaska also isn’t afraid to ban passengers for not wearing a mask. Almost 450 flyers have been banned as of March 17.
Boeing’s most notorious aircraft is having a great start to March with two milestones to kick off the month.
Alaska Airlines began passenger service with the Boeing 737 Max on Monday after a long-delayed start. Flight AS482 departed to San Diego from the airline’s hub in Seattle in the early morning hours of the day and arrived without issue before departing back for Seattle.
The first flight was the culmination of more than 19,000 miles and 50 hours of proving flights performed in the weeks since the aircraft’s delivery to Alaska. The airline’s sole Boeing 737 Max 9 was flown as far from Seattle as Charleston, South Carolina; Kailua-Kona, Hawaii; and Juneau, Alaska throughout February, FlightAware data shows.
Alaska is the fourth US airline to fly the Max and initially planned to start service during the summer of 2019 until the March 2019 grounding delayed those planes. The first Max delivery to Alaska only occurred in January, just two months following the Federal Aviation Administration’s ungrounding order that was quickly echoed by countless regulators around the world.
Alaska has only four daily departures are planned with the aircraft until March 18 when its second Max enters passenger service. Los Angeles and San Diego are currently the only cities receiving Max visits on flights from Seattle, according to Cirium data, and eventually from Portland, Oregon.
The aircraft will primarily stay on the West Coast until more aircraft are added but the proving flights reveal the airline likely has plans for East Coast and Hawaii Max flights. Alaska will be able to take the Max south of the border to Mexico, the airline’s largest international destination region, and Costa Rica as both countries have given the aircraft a green light to fly in their airspace.
United places more Max orders
United Airlines is also pressing forward with the Max on the heels of a successful relaunch. Andrew Nocella, the airline’s chief commercial officer, told staff in a memo that 25 new Boeing 737 Max aircraft were just ordered and deliveries of 45 previously ordered aircraft have been moved up.
“These new aircraft represent the best the industry has to offer in terms of customer amenities, experience and comfort,” Nocella said in the memo, which United shared with Insider. “In fact, flights on our MAX aircraft in 2018 and 2019 had the highest average customer satisfaction score of any large narrowbody aircraft.”