In July 2020 the pilot of a TUI Airlines flight from Birmingham to Majorca pushed the throttles of his Boeing 737 on the runway for a perfect take-off. Well almost! The flight was investigated by the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) and it found that the pilot applied less thrust than recommended, as the weight of the aircraft given to him was about a ton less than the actual weight.
Although an incorrect take-off weight was used, the thrust applied by the pilot was slightly higher than required and the plane was never out of the flight safety margin.
This error occurred due to a miscalculation by the software that classified 37 women as children who called themselves Miss instead of Ms. or Mrs.
Consequently, these women were assigned 66 pounds less than the average weight of an adult female, assigning 2500lbs less to the total take-off weight of the aircraft!
The airline later updated the software to resolve the problem.
With this story in mind, we see that the weight of the passengers and their baggage plays a crucial role in flight safety so how do airlines get it right? I mean, I have never been asked how much I weigh when checking in for a flight!
US Airlines base passenger weights on the FAA Standard Average Weight Table. Adult males in summer 190lbs, winter 195lbs. Adult females in summer 170lbs, winter 175lbs. Children in summer 82 lbs, winter 87lbs. The winter weight includes more clothing and heavier footwear. Baggage is extra.
To find out if the airline sneakily weighs you at check-in please read on…
Why is Airline Passenger Weight Needed?
Aircraft have maximum limitations for their weight and their center of gravity. Any exceedance of these limitations can mean the aircraft may not have enough power to take off or, once airborne has too much weight on one side causing the pilot to not control the aircraft. Both scenarios are deadly.
To ensure these limitations are not exceeded airlines have specialist ‘Load Masters’ that input all the data into a computer program that calculates the aircraft’s weight and balance before departure. This information is then given to the pilots who configure the aircraft before takeoff.
This data is fed into the aircraft flight computer which uses it to determine takeoff speed, rates of climb, flight control trim, and a host of other important aspects of flight. If the data is wrong, the aircraft will be configured incorrectly which can lead to disaster, hence the TUI incident above.
To determine the maximum takeoff weight for that aircraft the following data is computed:
- The empty aircraft with oils and fluids onboard
- Emergency equipment, trolleys, carts, spares, etc.
- Flight and cabin crew
- Food, water, and other catering items
- Water for toilets
- Duty-free items, headsets, blankets, pillows, newspapers, magazines, etc.
- Fuel needed for the flight minus fuel used up on taxing
- Baggage of the passengers
- All passengers plus carry-on bags based on the airline policy
The last two items are of concern for this article. All the other items are known weights as they are part of the standard aircraft loading configuration. Passenger, cargo, and fuel and the main variables on any flight with fuel being the last item calculated.
As a person books their ticket the use of their date of birth automatically assigns a weight to the passenger. Depending on the time of year and location of the flights’ origin or destination the computer will also decide whether that flight is using the summer or winter weight data.
Once all the passengers are booked in for the flight this data is then made available to the loadmaster who will make final changes to the plan before sending it out for the pilots and fueller.
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What are Standard Average Passenger Weights?
To avoid the discomfort, embarrassment, and time constraints of weighing every single passenger who wishes to board an airplane, Standard Average Weights are used on any aircraft with over 5 passenger seats. 190lbs for adult male, 170lbs for adult females, 82lbs for a child and 50lbs for baggage.
The FAA, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), sets forth a standard weight to allow easy calculation of most passengers’ weight. Because every person is different the FAA has found this is a typical average weight of people in the US.
To save time when a passenger is booked onto a flight the following weights are used:
|Summer Weight (lbs)
|Winter Weight (lbs)
Based on these weights, the loadmasters will plan on where baggage is to be loaded in the cargo hold to ensure the aircraft is within balance and then how much fuel can be loaded and remain under the aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight limitation.
Even though these are averages, the aircraft manufacturer has ensured on a typical flight the aircraft will never come close to its weight and balance limitations. Factors are added in for passengers moving up and down the aisles for bathroom breaks, cabin crew serving meals etc.
Most modern airliners have a sophisticated onboard weighing and balancing system that ensures the calculations are correct and will even automatically trim the aircraft in flight to maintain balance when there is a lineup of people waiting to use the aft bathroom for example.
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Are All Airline Passenger Weights the Same?
Airlines in other countries estimate passenger weight, based on recommendations from the country’s regulators, just the same as the FAA in the US. For example, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has determined the weight of an adult male passenger at 84.6 kg (186.5 lb), adult female at 66.6 kg (146.8 lb), and children between ages 2 to 12 at 30.7 kg (67.7 lb).
Australia’s Civil Aviation Authority (CASA) differentiates passenger weights depending on the seating capacity of the aircraft. For a small aircraft that seats around 7 to 9 passengers, the adult males are assigned a weight are 86 kg (190 lb) and adult females, 71 kg (157 lb).
Do Any Airlines Individually Weigh Their Passengers?
Samoa Air tried this in 2013, but it backfired. Since more weight means more fuel, they had the business idea to charge passengers in proportion to their weight. At the time, Samoa Air thought that this was the revenue model of the future – but that wasn’t the case. Just two years after the weight tickets were introduced, the airline went bankrupt.
However, on flights into Lukla Airport in Nepal, all passengers are individually weighed. Lukla is a unique airport, located high in the mountains and often thought of as one of the most dangerous airports in the world. It has a length of 729 ft with an 11.7% gradient.
This airport requires accurate load management for precision flying. Weighing passengers is not considered to be intrusive or rude here as every pound of weight has significant safety implications. Passengers willingly get themselves weighed and enjoy a thrilling flight of a lifetime between the Himalayas.
Also, if you are flying on a small aircraft with around 5 passenger seats then be prepared to be weighed, along with ALL your baggage.
Smaller aircraft have far tighter tolerances for their weight and balance and the difference of even 50lbs can have disastrous consequences. Tour flights, pleasure flights, and private charters are most likely when you will be personally weighed.
I have had to tell passengers to offload some of the items they need to bring when working with customers in the helicopter. Most leave a few extra tools behind, but as a pilot, it is my responsibility to ensure the aircraft is loaded and flown within its published limitations.
Why is Airline Passenger Baggage Limited to 50lbs?
Airline baggage is limited to 50lbs due to the manual lifting guidelines set out for the ground crew staff. Most baggage handling equipment is designed so baggage can be slid which places less strain on the body. All overweight baggage requires multiple personnel to move it and more fuel burned to fly it.
If you take a closer look out of the terminal window and watch the baggage handlers you will see how the industry has tried to give them the best ergonomic environment to work in. Repetitive rotations and movements involving heavy loads are the number one reasons for muscle injury in the workplace.
To help solve this the weight limit of 50lbs has been imposed, baggage carts are higher to prevent easy baggage maneuvering at torso height, conveyors are higher to allow for sliding of baggage from the cart to conveyor etc.
All of these small alterations have greatly improved the health of the tens of thousands of baggage handlers working around the globe. Most of us never think about it, but more complain about only having 50lbs but if you were on the other end moving thousands of bags weighing close to 50lbs each every day you would appreciate the weight limit too!
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