airline passenger restrictions and special requests: how far is too far?


Saturday’s post about Malaysian Airlines’ decision to create a child-free zone in their luxury first class caused a bit of a firestorm among my readers in the blogosphere. As predicted and understandably so, people with children were generally against the policy while people without children were generally for the policy.

As I read the responses, both public and via email, it made me think about passenger restrictions and the question: how far is too far? In other words, when do we cross the line from honoring special requests and into the world of infringing upon the “space” or “rights” or “experience” of other passengers to getting the experience they are promised by the airlines? Have the airlines even defined what that experience should be?

There are some special requests that most would not argue about. If you like you can order many special types of meals: vegetarian, gluten-free, diabetic, kosher, Hindu, etc. Save the meals related to one’s religious affiliation, the others are about a person’s health. Like the across-the-board smoking ban, most people [except a few die-hard smokers who deny the science on the issue] would probably agree that these are common sense options and common sense policies that protect the health of passengers.

Restrictions limiting the amount of luggage one can carry on board are annoying to those who like to bring everything including the kitchen sink on board, but these restrictions, when adhered to by airlines, are meant to create an equitable storage environment in which every passenger has some room to store their carry-on luggage.

Some of the new ideas being thrown around by the airlines and the blogosphere, however, are indeed quite controversial.

The creation of the world’s first child-free zone by Malaysia Airlines begs a few questions. What about a family that can afford the luxury first class ticket? Why should they be denied the opportunity to purchase that class of ticket with their child in tow? If this idea takes off [no pun intended] and spills into economy class, how would we all feel if certain row numbers were relegated as child-free zones? How would parents and non-parents feel about that?

Conversely, why should someone have their sleep disturbed by a crying individual? Given that babies are more likely to cry all night than adults [in most cases of course] we are mostly talking about babies. Not all babies are disruptive; some are more well-behaved than their parents. I was on one long-haul trans-Pacific flight on which the baby was the calmest one in my row while his parents and I were freaking out about the quite heavy turbulence. But of course, like adults, there are many who are indeed disruptive.

What about adult behavior? The issue of airplane decorum is clearly lost on many adult travelers. Just as a baby can be disruptive as they cry, many adults, who we expect should know better, have habits that are not conducive to flying and lessen the experience for everyone. Should we have a snore-free zone? A quiet zone? A reading-free zone in which no one turns on their overhead light? A laptop-free zone in which the bright glow of the screen does not keep us awake? Or how about a keyboard-free zone where we can be liberated from hearing the clickety-clack of someone’s keyboard for hours on end? What about a long-hair-free zone in which we do not have to be subjected to someone swishing their hair around in our personal space? And the armrest bandits take note: how about a surcharge if you misuse the armrests by infringing on your neighbors space? The list is endless and becomes increasingly ridiculous as we continue to category every behavior into do’s and don’ts – those do’s that are permissible and those don’ts that are regulated.

The weight of passengers is an issue that airlines have tip-toed around for many years and whispers of potential new policies constantly make their way around the industry. This issue is probably the most controversial of issues that the airlines could take on. As the argument goes, if a passenger has to pay extra for luggage that is over the allotted weight, why should an airline stop there? Given the high costs of fuel, why should a 125-lb. person pay the same ticket price as a 250-lb. person? Does not the heavier person expend more fuel by just being on the plane? Or maybe the airline should make each passenger stand on a scale with all of their luggage and surcharge over a certain total weight [maximum total weight – (my weight + the weight of my luggage) = surcharge]?

Of course that idea is ridiculous and not practical, as someone who by birth in six feet five inches is certainly going to weigh more than 125 even at zero percent body fat. Are they not already at a disadvantage because of their height? Forget about weight, but shouldn’t the airlines make a special arrangement for tall people? Should they not get the first opportunity to sit in the exit row? In the end, while there are real issues here, any policy related to this begins to smell of discrimination. So, fair or not in the eyes of the thin and waify, everyone shares the costs of everyone else’s weight and luggage weight.

It is general human nature that when people say they want things to be equitable what they really want is things to be “equitable advantage me.” In other words, I want things to be equitable as long as my personal circumstances are taken into account.

But let’s not forget something very important. While humanity expends considerable energy dividing and subdividing ourselves we are losing sight that our greatest strength is our diversity.

The question for the airlines is how to celebrate that diversity while at the same time responding to the needs of their clients.


  1. I agree – the point of this article is to promote the discussion of this topic. Whether we like it or not, the move by Malaysian Airlines to respond to these types of issues will not be the last.

    Airlines do surcharge for extra weight when it comes to checked baggage. If I bring a small checked bag with a heavy anvil in it, I will be charged by weight and not by volume. So apparently, even if it has not been formally articulated and whether or not it is a proxy, airlines are charging in terms of weight and that extra weight does add to their costs.

    Further, extra weight in any form requires extra fuel which also has weight. To use a crazy example, empty passenger bladders would help decrease fuel costs as well. It is estimated that if everyone went to the bathroom before each flight, American Airlines would save $3.1 million annually, based upon 85% full planes.

    Could this soon mean mandatory pre-flight potty time?

  2. American Airlines carries 340 million passengers per year, which means by those dubious figures a full bladder costs an extra 1c in fuel costs: and even that sounds 10-fold too high by my calculations.

    This is why the whole concept of charging extra by weight is absurd. If you were to do it an obese person might end up paying an extra 25c on their ticket – which would clearly make it uneconomical considering the extra time and equipment (and legal fees) requiring to do all of that weighing.

    There was never economic sense in these proposal, they are only made for shock value.

  3. If the concept is so absurd then why do airlines charge fees for extra weight for checked baggage? For example, for bags more than 23kg (51lbs) and less than 32kg (70lbs), British Airways charges £40 or local equivalent at check-in ($60 from any US departure airport). Baggage over 32kg must be shipped separately as freight or cargo, which costs even more. Second checked bags also result in large fees (£40/$60/€50 in World Traveler class).

    Whether it seems illogical or not these are the types of policies airlines are indeed considering behind closed doors, ergo my article. Even if there is not a direct cost correlation, it is another way for them to create revenue.

    Note: saving $3.1 million a year would pay for sixty two $50k a year jobs. So, make sure you get to the potty before your next flight! 🙂

  4. Yeah, because when companies cut costs the first thing they do is create extra jobs…

    Why do airlines charge fees for extra weight for checked baggage? Firstly because they have to cap the cargo volume and secondly for extra income. Why do they charge thousands of times more money than is justified by the extra fuel charges? Firstly because they can, and secondly because the true fuel costs would not be sufficient disincentive to limit volume.

    Okay, companies may be considering this as an option (for about two seconds, before their legal team bursts out in laughter), but why are passengers treating this as anything other than a money grab? There is no need to provoke people into abusing those who are overweight on the trumped up charge that it is costing them extra money on plane tickets.