I had an interesting experience recently while preparing for a flight from Los Angeles to Baltimore. It was a completely full flight– initially, at least– with myself and 174 other passengers who had already boarded the Southwest 737-800, seemingly ready to push back and get on our way.
However, after a delay of several minutes, a flight attendant came on the PA and asked for two– specifically two– volunteers to give up their seat, in exchange for a flight later that afternoon. Two people immediately jumped up, left the airplane, and then we were ready to go… now with two empty seats.
The problem was weight: due to a changing forecast of bad weather, both in Baltimore and en route, we had taken on additional fuel at the last minute (e.g., to allow for diverting to a possibly now-more-distant alternate airport), resulting in the airplane exceeding its maximum takeoff weight. Something had to go, and apparently two passengers and their carry-on bags were a sufficient reduction in weight to allow us to take off.
What I found interesting about this episode was the relative precision of the change– 175 (or even 174) passengers bad, 173 passengers good– compared with the uncertainty in the total weight of the passengers, personal items, and carry-on bags remaining on board. That is, how does the airline know how much we weigh? Since Southwest does not ask individual passengers for their weight, let alone ask them to step on an actual scale prior to boarding, some method of estimation is required.
The FAA provides guidance on how to do this (see reference below): for large-cabin aircraft, the assumed average weight of an adult passenger, his or her clothing, personal items, and a carry-on bag is 190 pounds, with a standard deviation of 47 pounds. The figure below shows the resulting probability distribution of the total weight of all 175 passengers on the initially completely full flight:
It’s worth noting that the referenced Advisory Circular does provide a more detailed breakdown of assumed average passenger weight, to account for season of travel (5 more pounds of clothing in the winter), gender, children vs. adults, and “nonstandard weight groups” such as sports teams, etc. But for this summer flight, with a relatively even split of male and female passengers, the only simplifying assumption in the above figure is no kids.
The point is that this seems like a significant amount of uncertainty in the actual total weight of the airplane, for less than 400 pounds to be the difference between “Nope, we’re overweight” and “Okay, we’re safe to take off.”
- Federal Aviation Administration Advisory Circular AC-120-27E, “Aircraft Weight and Balance Control,” 10 June 2005 [PDF]