Image: Jorge De la Paz

Could credit card data take the weight off airlines’ shoulders when it comes to passengers of size?

Knowing the weight of each passenger in advance could help airlines better accommodate so-called passengers of size. Hawaiian Airlines generated controversy when it began weighing passengers during a six-month survey to find out why fuel burn was much higher on flights to American Samoa, a territory with high rates of obesity.

According to a recently disclosed patent application from 2015, MasterCard believes it can provide accurate data on passenger weight to airlines, based on account holders’ purchase history, including clothing and shoe sizes. Often, overweight passengers are required to purchase an additional seat, and may even be asked to deplane if they are unable to fit entirely within their own seat. But some airlines approach weight issues differently.

Hawaiian Airlines now restricts seat assignments on flights to American Samoa to control weight distribution. Uzbekistan Airways weighs passengers, it says, to determine whether they fall into adult or child groups. And then there’s Samoa Air’s “pay by weight” policy, which has hardly caused a fuss among its passengers. Chris Langton, CEO of the private airline, says passengers are always intrigued by this policy, but quick to understand the concept. “They see that this rationale makes perfect sense,” he says.

With enough purchase data, it might be possible to estimate the weight of each passenger.

Currently, most consumer credit card transactions only include basic information, such as merchant name, transaction amount and date. Further information on items purchased, called Level 3 data, is only sent to government and institutional cardholders for their own tracking and reconciliation. With enough purchase data, it might be possible to estimate the weight of each passenger, but several obstacles would remain.

First, consumers would be giving up a tremendous amount of privacy if payment networks and card issuers were tracking and sharing that kind of purchase data. Also, airlines would have to be on board with this solution, which may be in search of a problem.

Southwest Airlines encourages passengers of size to purchase a refundable extra seat ahead of time or to discuss their needs with an agent at the departure gate. A spokesperson for the airline says, “This policy works well for us and we don’t expect to make any changes in the near future.” While using credit card data to estimate passenger size may be a fascinating concept, it’s unlikely to be implemented anytime soon.

“When Data Weighs In” was originally published in the 7.3 June/July issue of APEX Experience magazine.