In the midst of a particularly worrisome news cycle for airline safety in recent weeks, one item may have been understandably overlooked: a report the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating Southwest Airlines for operating as many as one-third of its 4,000 daily flights with inaccurate weight and balance data.
You may have had a flight affected by weight and balance priorities and perhaps you didn’t know why. It could have involved moving you to another seat to achieve proper center of gravity. Or bumping your baggage due to weight restrictions. Or maybe even bumping you. What you need to know is that under certain conditions, balancing a full aircraft presents operational challenges that can affect your flight.
More: Southwest Airlines under FAA investigation for aircraft weight, balance calculations
A delicate balance
During my airline career I was a loadmaster on cargo aircraft and later was involved in dispatching passenger flights. Both roles mandated that airplanes were safely loaded within maximum weight limits. Is it really a safety issue? Most definitely — an improperly loaded and/or overloaded airplane is a danger to everyone on board. Depending upon how deeply you care to dive into the whys, the FAA offers a comprehensive online “Weight and Balance Handbook.” But the takeaway is simple: “Because of abnormal stresses placed upon the structure of an improperly loaded aircraft, or because of changed flying characteristics of the aircraft, loss of life and destruction of valuable equipment may result.” Such errors have contributed to more than a few fatal airline accidents over time.
The challenge for airlines is to fill airplanes with as many passengers and as much baggage (and cargo) as possible, while not exceeding weight limits that can be affected by weather and takeoff restrictions such as short runways. And such conditions can require additional fuel, which means a higher takeoff weight, so that delicate balance can be elusive.
Baggage is individually weighed at some airlines but methodologies vary. Passenger weights are generally estimated and averaged; in addition, some carriers modify such averages seasonally to accommodate for heavier clothing by using “winter weights” in certain climates.
What follows is a rundown of typical scenarios in which weight and balance requirements may affect your travel plans, along with advice on how to respond. It’s neither practical nor possible to compensate for such issues in all cases, but knowledge can help you make better decisions.
To underscore the severity, the National Transportation Safety Board reported that 136 general aviation accidents in nine years were due to improper or missing calculations. You’re more likely to encounter weight issues when flying on smaller airplanes, particularly codeshare regional flights.
Delta’s Contract of Carriage states that among the conditions for which you will not be entitled to compensation if denied boarding is when a flight is operated by aircraft designed to hold 60 or fewer passengers, and Delta is unable to accommodate you “due to weight/balance restrictions when required by operational or safety reasons.” United’s Contract of Carriage and American’s Conditions of Carriage provide almost identical language, right down to 60-passenger capacity.
If you’re uncertain what size aircraft will operate your flight, check the site or travel agent before booking, then visit the airline’s fleet data. For example, Delta’s online “Our Aircraft” page specifies the Bombardier CRJ-200 is configured for 50 passengers. On some routes, you may be able to rebook to larger aircraft.
But a word of warning: Nearly every airline reserves the right to “swap” aircraft right up until departure time. So the aircraft type scheduled to operate a given flight may not necessarily be the aircraft assigned to that flight. Passenger rights in the U.S. are heavily restricted by such contracts.
More: Contracts of carriage: Deciphering murky airline rules
Natural and structural restrictions
Aircraft engine performance can be negatively affected by high-altitude airports, high temperatures and high winds, so flight planning needs to account for such factors with additional fuel — which could mean fewer passengers and/or bags. Geography and infrastructure can affect takeoff weight in other ways; shorter runways can necessitate lighter loads, as can mountainous terrain or other obstructions that limit usable runway length. Keep in mind that some of the shortest runways are at two of the nation’s busiest airports, New York’s LaGuardia and Washington National, and subsequently those two facilities restrict larger widebody aircraft.
Traveling with wheelchairs
United’s contract specifically states the airline will refuse large wheelchairs or other assistive devices that would “cause a load imbalance in a small baggage compartment and violate weight and balance safety requirements.” That said, United says it will “use reasonable efforts” to “identify” a flight that can accommodate the wheelchair — but that’s no guarantee, particularly for such a vital accessory, so plan in advance.
Weight and balance problems are particularly acute on helicopters and small aircraft used for sightseeing and island-hopping, particularly in leisure destinations such as Hawaii and the Caribbean. If you’re planning such trips, consider weather and other factors by contacting the operator the day before to ensure your flights are still scheduled.
It’s important to remember that even the most technologically sophisticated aircraft are still subject to the laws of physics, so modifications that may seem arbitrary can in fact be critical to your safety.
Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years. Tell him what you think of his latest column by sending him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your name, hometown and daytime phone number, and he may use your feedback in a future column.