Got a note from a long time member/pilot who flies for Angel Flight. He noted that his passengers tend to consistently underestimate their weights. He either has to fly overweight or inform them that 150 pounds of luggage or Aunt Tilly has to stay behind. Not so good.
The standard 170-pound human that the airlines used to estimate tonnage has been increased to about 190 pounds—with lower or higher bracketing based on season and Kentucky windage. With big aircraft it’s less of an issue, and with a large number of people the bell-shaped curve drives weights to the statistical average.
Southwest Airlines delicately addresses the issue on their website in the Customers of Size section: “…who encroach upon any part of the neighboring seat(s) may proactively purchase the needed number of seats prior to travel in order to ensure the additional seat(s) is available. The armrest is considered to be the definitive boundary between seats; width between the armrests measures 17 inches. The purchase of additional seats serves as a notification to Southwest of a special seating need, and allows us to adequately plan for the number of seats that will be occupied on the aircraft.”
For light aircraft, weight and its distribution go beyond decorum/comfort to safety of flight. Generally, the aircraft is already fueled by the time the passengers show up, and the pilot has planned on a certain amount, so we don’t have that flexibility. De-fueling is expensive and messy. If the runway is short or the density altitude high, rate of climb becomes essential to survival.
One technique that has served me well is to consciously add weight to whatever a potential passenger tells me. The percentage varies based on the suspected veracity and gender of the traveler. For luggage, I have a small digital scale that helps to ensure that neither weight nor balance limits are exceeded.
Our member suggested perhaps having the AOPA Foundation buy digital scales for FBOs to actually weigh passengers. “Perhaps,” he suggests, “use it as a fundraising campaign as well as a safety reminder.” It’s a novel idea but potentially explosive. What do you think?
Free educational programs from the Air Safety Institute—like safety advisors and online courses (including one to help volunteer pilots balance safety and compassion)—are available to all thanks to support from pilots everywhere. Help us to keep educating pilots on safety issues by donating to the AOPA Foundation today.