Thursday, October 28, 2004

Physicians concerned about obesity warn that expanding waistlines in America are posing an unexpected cost — to airlines.

The report, featured in this month’s American Journal of Preventive Medicine, said that weight gain in the 1990s, estimated at approximately 10 pounds per person, required the use of an additional 350 million gallons of jet fuel in 2000.

That represents about 2 percent of the total volume of jet fuel used that year.

Two physicians at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and a California public health officer estimated that the weight gain was costing airlines about $275 million per year back in 2000, when jet fuel cost 79 cents per gallon — less than half what jet fuel costs today.

The report also warned that the extra fuel added 3.8 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions and less sizable quantities of other pollutants, such as nitric oxide and carbon monoxide.

Dr. Deron Burton, a co-author of the study, said the report was meant as another tool for discussion of the “obesity epidemic.”

Direct consequences of obesity — like the increased chance for obese people to contract diseases such as diabetes, stroke and hypertension — are well-documented in the medical community.

A report released this week by the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the CDC, stated that adult men and women are an average 25 pounds heavier than they were in 1960.

But the indirect consequences found in the journal’s study suggest that obesity affects more than the public’s health, said Dr. Burton, an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer at the CDC.

Not all airlines view passenger weight as a major issue.

“As far as I am aware, there are no major concerns regarding weight,” said Southwest Airlines spokesman Ed Stewart. Mr. Stewart, who said he had not seen the study, said it would be a “real stretch” to associate major fuel impacts with passenger weight.

Other airlines referred questions to the Air Transport Association, a Washington trade group for the major domestic airlines.

ATA spokesman Jack Evans said the airlines continue to grapple with how to make their airplanes lighter and more fuel-efficient.

Passenger weight is more of a concern in smaller planes with less than 30 rows of seats, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a Washington D.C. trade group for airline passengers.

America’s widening girth is “part of the whole process for airlines,” Mr. Stempler said. “The question is how to deal with this issue safely and properly without alienating customers,” he said.

Airlines use weight estimates to determine how much fuel is needed for the passengers and luggage on a given plane. Equal weight distribution within an aircraft also is a safety issue.

The Federal Aviation Administration in 1995 set the recommended average adult estimate at 180 to 185 pounds, depending on the season, and 25 pounds for each checked bag.

That estimate changed last year as a result of a January 2003 crash of US Airways Express/Air Midwest Flight 5481 at North Carolina’s Charlotte-Douglas Airport. A maintenance error combined with too much weight in the back of the plane led to the crash of the commuter airplane, killing 21 persons.

The FAA then ordered airlines to add 10 pounds to the average weight for each passenger and 5 pounds for each checked bag when calculating loads.

To lower their aircraft weight, some airlines have done away with in-flight magazines while others have swapped metal cutlery for lighter, plastic utensils, Mr. Evans said. But major airlines have no plans to begin charging passengers based on their weight, Mr. Evans said.

Airlines aren’t the only industry burdened by stouter people. Obese patients contributed to 27 percent of rising health care costs from 1987 to 2001, according to an analysis published this month in the Health Affairs journal.

Costs incurred by obese Americans were 37 percent higher than incurred by others, the report said.

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