Portly Plane Passengers A Problem

Raising passenger weight estimates could prove costly to regional airlines, say carriers rattled by a Federal Aviation Administration re-examination of the averages used to determine safe flying weights.

Raising the figure — 180-185 pounds per adult passenger — by 10 pounds might require airlines to eliminate seats to comply. "The cost would be staggering," Debby McElroy, president of the Regional Airline Association, said Thursday.

An accident that killed 21 people last winter led the FAA to reassess air travelers' average weight. A US Airways Express flight that crashed at the airport in Charlotte, N.C., was estimated to be within 100 pounds of maximum takeoff weight.

After the crash, the FAA ordered 15 airlines to survey passenger weights.

The survey showed that passengers and their bags generally are heavier than the estimates now used, agency spokeswoman Laura Brown said.

Though any changes would affect all airlines, regional carriers are most concerned. They fly a higher percentage of planes with 10 to 19 seats than do the major airlines.

Weight is important for all planes but extremely so for smaller aircraft. Too many bags in the rear compartment or a few large people in the back could change a small plane's center of gravity and make it much more difficult to fly.

Investigators are looking at weight as a possible contributing cause of the Charlotte crash. The National Transportation Safety Board will hold a hearing on the accident on May 20. The FAA may issue its weight recommendations before then.

McElroy said adding 10 pounds per passenger would force her membership to carry fewer passengers or less cargo — if baggage estimates are raised — to meet weight requirements. She urged the FAA to study the issue further.

The association estimates that regional carriers fly one in eight domestic airline passengers. As a result of the survey, some airlines have changed their weight estimates and now carry only 18 passengers on a 19-seat plane.

The FAA is considering several proposals and a recommendation could come this month.

Under current guidelines, an adult passenger flying in winter is estimated to weigh 185 pounds, including clothing and carry-ons. The same passenger is calculated at 180 pounds during summer travel.

Children age 2 to 12 are estimated to weigh 80 pounds in winter and summer. Each checked bag is calculated to weigh an average of 25 pounds for a domestic flight and 30 pounds for international travel.

Some believe those estimates, in place since 1995, may be too low because Americans and their carry-on bags have gotten larger. Adult men averaged 180.7 pounds in 1994, the most recent year in which statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention are available.

The survey found passenger weights varied by airline. David Lotterer, the association's vice president, said that may be explained by some airlines weighing passengers with their carry-ons and some without.

It also is possible those airlines serving colder areas might have carried passengers wearing heavier clothes than those flying in warmer locations.

"We need a consistent approach," McElroy said. "You want a system in place where one passenger getting off one airline is the same weight when he gets on another airline."