Not content with plans to scrap check-in desks, charge passengers for using toilets and clobber customers with a £30 charge if their duty free won't fit into their hand luggage, Ryanair has hit on a new scheme for increasing revenue: a so-called fat tax for overweight travellers.
In what appears as much a ruse to gain publicity as a serious policy, the Irish-based budget carrier said today it would impose an as yet undecided extra levy on passengers who weigh considerably more than average.
The charge, which could fall foul of discrimination laws before it ever takes effect, was proposed following a poll of passengers on the airline's website. It attracted more votes than other ideas, including a €1 levy to use onboard toilet paper, which would have the face of the airline's famously pugnacious chief executive, Michael O'Leary, printed on it. The fat tax gathered nearly a third of all the votes.
The airline now plans to poll passengers on how the charge should be calculated, with ideas including a per-kilo levy for all men weighing more than 130kg (20 stone) and women more than 100kg, or a fixed penalty if a passenger's waist touches both neighbouring armrests at the same time.
The United policy is controversial in part because it targets a group of people that is easy to target, because being overweight is seen as the result of a lazy, undisciplined, gluttonous lifestyle, and the penalizing of overweight people for their indolence enjoys tacit acceptance among many members of the public. What appears as a simple case of "well if they take up more space let them pay more" is far more complex, since other dimensions or manifestations of 'largeness' are not equally treated. I fly often, and have never been inconvenienced by a person spilling into my seat because of fat hips or a large belly. I have many times, however, been shoved around by a person who did not appear fat and who managed to buckle his seatbelt, but had such a large back and shoulders, he was occupying his seat and half of mine.
And this is not the only case where it might be fair to question how much of the responsibility is the passenger's and how much is the airline's to provide a conveyance that ensures the comfort of all its passengers. At some point when I wasn't looking, it became my problem that my reclined seat would inconvenience a tall passenger behind me. So I am now expected to spend an 8-hour flight bolt upright because a passenger - who is their responsibility, not mine - cannot fit into the standard space afforded when the seatback before him is reclined. Surely it is the airline's responsibility to seat us both comfortably. Why isn't the tall person behind me being forced into first class or a second seat at an additional price? Or why am I not being asked to pay a premium for a reclinable seat, since my back cannot sustain extended periods of sitting upright? There are other groups of people who require more space; not just those with broad, fat midsections (because fat can be distributed differently so as to allow Person 1, who weighs the same as Person 2 but carries it in other parts of the body, to be exempt from this penalty depending on how fatness is measured).
But Ryanair is not even pretending that this is about the comfort and safety of other passengers. (Well they are pretending but) in the context of the cost-saving idea poll, it's clear that this is merely another in a series of arrogant and idiotic cost-cutting measures. What they are proposing is to possibly weigh passengers and then charge them for each kilo they exceed some predetermined standard weight. As the article acknowledges, this is likely to be shot down under discrimination legislature, but I find it mortifying that a company would even suggest something so absurd, and worse, that the public would endorse it. I'm sure those voters who supported the measure are going to love being made to step onto a scale to see whether they are within passenger weight guidelines, while friends, family and strangers look on. Even as a publicity ruse, this policy is chock full of boo and hiss.
And Ryanair's gem of a spokesperson, Stephen McNamara, also had this to say:
"These charges, if introduced, might also act as an incentive to some of our very large passengers to lose a little weight and hopefully feel a little lighter and healthier."
Eureka! Why didn't we think of this before? Discrimination and humiliation are surefire ways to get people to lose weight. Quick! Everyone drive down the street and oink at the next fattie you see. We'll all be thin in no time.