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Passengers keep getting bigger. Now airlines must account more accurately for that.
The Federal Aviation Administration is requiring updates to passenger and baggage weight estimates that airlines use to keep each flight within airplane safety limits. Each U.S. airline must submit a plan by June 12 explaining which average weights for passengers and baggage they’ll use, down to phones and clothing, and how they estimated those weights. The FAA must approve each airline’s plan.
Airline officials say the weight estimates used for passengers and baggage are going up between 5% and 10%. That will affect some flights, possibly requiring that more passengers get bumped or more baggage left behind. Impact is likelier on unusually hot days and in cities higher above sea level, when the weight an airplane can safely carry is reduced because wings won’t generate as much lift. Flights into stiff headwinds that require more fuel also may face more weight issues.
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Some airlines declined to talk about passenger weight and how they’ll handle the updated requirement. Others say they’re already taking steps to minimize any disruption this summer when the adjusted weight rules take effect.
"We’ve done a year’s worth of preparation," says Mike Byham, director of operations engineering at American Airlines. "We put a lot of work into this to make it a nonevent."
The FAA says it’s pushing the change to make sure that aircraft are loaded in accordance with airplane flight-manual limitations. The changes increase safety by reducing the possibility of an overloaded airplane.
While airlines are supposed to keep up with passenger changes, the agency realized that weight gains hadn’t been updated in years.
Some airlines complain privately that the FAA won’t delay adoption of new weight standards until they get past the summer travel surge. In most every summer, planes are full, putting weight closer to limits at a time when it’s harder to rebook passengers.
Carriers say airports in mountain areas like Salt Lake City and Denver, and even hot spots like Phoenix, which has had air-travel disruptions in heat waves, are areas of concern.