New rules for flights between Pago Pago, the capital city of American Samoa, and Honolulu have caused quite a bit of turbulence for some Hawaiian Airlines passengers.
Travelers will no longer be able to pre-select seats before embarking on the five-and-a-half-hour journey, because of a new system planned to reallocate locations based on passenger weight. Hawaiian Airlines said it recently conducted a review and found that its Boeing 767 planes were burning too much fuel when flying to Pago Pago. To address this, designated seats will be left empty or reserved for children under the age of 13. Presumably, these changes will reduce the overall plane weight and reduce fuel consumption.
The airline disputed reports that it would weigh passengers before boarding, like the controversial pay-as-you-weigh pricing introduced by Samoa Air in 2013.
“We will not be weighing passengers at any point during the check-in or boarding process,” said Tara Shimooka, Hawaiian Airlines representative, in a statement emailed to the Toronto Sun.
But two recent travelers complained to the Transportation Department separately that they had been weighed before their flights to Pago Pago.
“And of course Hawaiian is saying that ‘yes it is a safety issue’ but, you know, weight distribution … so have we been flying unsafe for all these years?” wondered Avamua David Haleck, an American Samoa businessman who filed one of the complaints, in an interview with Radio New Zealand. A fellow businessman, Daniel King, also argued that being weighed was discriminatory, because it only occurred before flights bound for the Samoan city.
The extra scrutiny stems, in no small part, from the fact that a significant number of American Samoans are obese. With an obesity rate estimated in 2007 at 74 percent of the population, the territory was ranked as the most obese among nations in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook. Factors contributing to the prevalence of obesity among Samoans include genetic adaptations to historically scant resources, the global push toward sedentary lifestyles and increasingly available cheap, processed food.
It is a problem that has not gone unnoticed among the highest levels of the island territory’s government: In 2014, American Samoa Gov. Lolo Matalasi Moliga created a task force to address obesity, noting that the disease and its related health effects like diabetes had a “pervasive and devastating impact” on quality of life and fiscal health.
(The higher than average rates of obesity among American Samoa and other Pacific nations can be a culturally sensitive topic, too: Critics of the upcoming Disney film “Moana,” for instance, lamented that the hefty physique of the Polynesian demigod Maui — voiced by muscle-bound actor Dwayne Johnson — harmed the image of Pacific Islanders. Others countered that making the very argument plays into the stereotype, rather than viewing an animated Maui’s bulk as strength.)
The airline admitted to weighing the passengers, but told the Australian newspaper that it was part of its six-month study of cabin weights. The company said that by assigning seats it can prioritize keeping families together while managing “the distribution of weight across each row.”
Hawaiian Airlines told Pacific Business News that the Transportation Department had determined the airline’s policy was “not discriminatory.” The Transportation Department has not responded to an emailed request for comment from The Washington Post early Friday.
This is not the first time that travelers have argued passenger weight prompted unfair treatment at the hands of an airline. In 2012, a New Orleans woman sued Southwest Airlines, alleging she was refused a ticket after being told she was “too fat to fly.” A judge dismissed the suit without prejudice.
More recently, an Italian man sought damages from Emirates Airline, not because he was overweight, but because his seatmate was. In September, lawyer Giorgio Destro said his nine-hour flight from Cape Town to Dubai was ruined because he had to sit next to an overweight passenger.
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