ANCHORAGE - Airline passengers traveling in rural Alaska soon will be weighed during a study period, so the Federal Aviation Administration can determine if the weight estimates it uses are accurate.
The FAA last week announced it was ordering commuter airlines nationwide to weigh passengers. The order follows the Jan. 8 airplane crash in Charlotte, N.C., in which 21 people were killed.
Citing concerns that the plane may have been overloaded, the agency asked operators of similar twin-engine aircraft to verify passenger weights that previously had been estimated. Three Alaska carriers are affected - PenAir, Frontier Flying Service and Era Aviation.
The weight survey comes on the heels of studies that show more Americans are overweight than ever before and that Alaskans are near the top of the list. Although the increasing size of fliers is not a factor in the FAA directive, it could affect the outcome of the study, FAA spokeswoman Joette Storm said.
"I suppose it's conceivable that if we find Americans are heavier, there may be fewer seats in the airplane," Storm said.
Every airplane is certified to carry a maximum amount of weight. It's up to the airline to ensure the weight and balance on each flight are within the published limits, Storm said. But airlines can determine the weight of passengers by asking them at check-in or using an average.
Frontier uses the average weight method. Passengers disliked being asked their weight while standing in line, said Bob Hajdukovich, director of operations for the Fairbanks-based carrier.
"You can imagine the kind of looks you get," especially when someone says they weigh 160 pounds "and you think they're 190," he said.
Rather than rely on the FAA's averages, Frontier did its own survey several years ago, Hajdukovich said. Its summertime average for adults with carry-on baggage is 183 pounds, or three pounds higher than the FAA allows. Its wintertime average is 190 pounds, five pounds above the FAA number.
Frontier also could use an average weight for baggage, but doesn't, Hajdukovich said. "The average passenger from Fairbanks to Anchorage might be carrying a briefcase. From Fairbanks to Kalskag they've got 300 pounds of groceries," he said.
Each airline that flies 10- to 19-passenger planes must conduct the survey during a single Sunday-through-Tuesday period in February. All passengers, carry-ons and bags must be weighed, Storm said.
Ultimately, said Paul Landis, vice president and operations director at Era Aviation, using the average weight method "is a lot better way to go from the customers' standpoint."
"In order to preserve that system, however, we have to occasionally audit," he said. "It's in nobody's interest to fly an aircraft overweight."