- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2004

Airlines would need to periodically weigh their passengers to ensure the carriers know how much weight their regional airplanes will carry under a new rule the Federal Aviation Administration is considering.

The move arose from the National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB) investigation of the crash of US Airways Express Flight 5481 last year at North Carolina’s Charlotte-Douglas Airport. All 21 persons aboard were killed in the crash, the deadliest in the United States in nearly 2-1/2 years.

The twin-engine plane, operated by Air Midwest, was virtually uncontrollable, partly because of faulty maintenance but partly because the passengers were too heavy and unevenly distributed in the airplane.

The NTSB said the airline’s guidelines for estimating the weight of passengers and baggage were inaccurate. The pilots, therefore, didn’t realize the plane’s rear section was too heavy.

“We’re talking about very small airplanes,” said Paul Takemoto, FAA spokesman. “People boarding [Boeing] 747s or DC-10s are not going to be weighed.”

Instead, any new rules on weighing passengers would apply to commercial airplanes that carry fewer than 20 passengers. Airlines that operate the planes would need to take occasional “samplings” of passenger weights to make sure their estimates of airplane loads are accurate.

Most airlines that operate small aircraft already weigh passengers and loads to get their “actual weights,” but only in unusual circumstances, Mr. Takemoto said.

“There are instances where actual weights are used, but those are instances where they have a football team, for example, that is flying,” he said. “Then they have to go from average weights to actual weights.”

David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a nonprofit advocacy group for airline passengers, recommended that airlines hide their weighing system from passengers.

“One method for weighing passengers would be to weigh the passengers and their carry-ons with a discreet scale in front of the ticket counter or the gate,” Mr. Stempler said. “This would give a combined weight. The weight could be automatically inputted into the reservation or load computer.”

Passengers who objected to being weighed might simply be out of luck, he said.

“There is a passenger dignity issue involved with overall passenger weights, but for smaller aircraft, the safety requirements clearly outweigh the passenger dignity issues,” Mr. Stempler said.

The FAA and airlines have not determined the method they would use to weigh passengers.

“It’s too early to determine what, if any, changes will be made, but we’re studying the recommendations,” said David Castelveter, US Airways spokesman.

Any new rules, which are being assessed by an FAA committee, would set a standardized system for when passenger weighing must be done. The committee is scheduled to deliver its report to the FAA at the end of March.

After the US Airways crash, the FAA ordered 15 airlines to weigh a certain percentage of passengers to determine whether the current guidelines were correct. Checked bags, for example, were estimated to weigh 25 pounds, and adult passengers in winter were calculated to weigh 185 pounds.

The survey showed what many suspected: Passengers and their bags had gotten heavier. The FAA issued temporary guidelines adding up to 10 pounds to its estimate for passengers and 5 pounds to luggage.

The NTSB said those guidelines don’t go far enough. The board recommended that the FAA identify situations in which airlines should actually weigh passengers and bags instead of using estimates.

It also recommended that the FAA require airlines operating planes with 10 or more seats to weigh passengers from time to time to determine when they might be heavier, such as in the winter when they wear coats.

“The use of average weights does not necessarily ensure that an aircraft will be loaded within its weight and center of gravity envelope,” the NTSB report said.

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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