Commuter airlines to test-weigh passengers

FAA directive is effort to help balance planes

February 09, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The Federal Aviation Administration is considering requiring all passengers on small airlines to be weighed.

Having precise passenger and luggage weight is crucial on small planes, where several people with a few extra pounds can tilt the plane away from its center of gravity, says Stuart Klaskin, a Coral Gables, Fla., aviation consultant.

Before a plane takes off, the pilot must calculate the weight of the aircraft as well as that of its passengers, luggage and crew to determine what seats passengers should occupy to ensure proper balance.

"If a lady says she is 140 pounds but I know she's heavier, I make her stand on a [luggage] scale," said Michelle Thompson, a ticket agent for Lynx Air International, which flies to the Caribbean from Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

"I don't want to call them a liar, but a propeller plane is not a 757, and if the plane drops out of the sky, I don't want it to be my fault."

This month, airlines with up to 19 passengers must spend three consecutive days weighing their passengers or asking them their weight and adding 10 pounds in case they are wrong. The records will determine what action the FAA will take.

Hugh Mason, director of operations for Gulfstream International Airlines, which flies out of Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach international airports, said the FAA's directive will embarrass passengers.

"We are not dealing with bags here," he said. "Bags don't care if we weigh them. They don't have any feelings."

Problems with weight and balance have been identified as possible causes of a Charlotte, N.C., plane accident last month that killed 21 people. It was also a factor in the crash that killed R&B singer Aaliyah and her entourage in August 2001.

The FAA sampling "is a good thing; [people] should be happy to do it," Klaskin said. "They are contributing to the safety of the flight."

But for Shaun Harvey, an Oklahoma resident who stopped recently in South Florida on his way to the Bahamas, it is a big deal. "If I tell them my weight is 250 or 260 pounds, they can take [my word for] it and save me the embarrassment," he said.

Mason said he is afraid weighing people will discourage them from using commuter airlines, many of which are in financial trouble.

"When you ask a man or a woman who is overweight their weight, it's one more harassment of the public," Mason said. "This is after herding them through security."

Most commuter airlines try to be discreet, allowing passengers to whisper or write down their weight. If agents suspect they're lying, which is common, they smile and write down their own estimates when the customer leaves.

The FAA expects to analyze the survey results and decide on reforms before year's end.

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