The fat police are coming.

No, not the 300-pound boys in blue you might expect to see hanging out at the local donut shop.

We are referring, of course, to investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) who announced this week that they are looking into the effects of passenger weight on airline safety.

Specifically, FAA investigators are exploring the possibility that too much weight contributed to the crash of a commuter aircraft in North Carolina earlier this month. Twenty-one people died in the crash.

As a result of this tragic incident the agency is under pressure to find out whether its estimates of average passenger weight are accurate or need to be revised. Currently FAA rules allow airlines to estimate that a male passenger flying in winter weighs an average of 175 pounds, including clothing and carry-ons, and that each checked bag weighs an average of 25 pounds. Airlines are being asked to weigh their passengers over the next 30 days to test the validity of those figures.

We are glad to see the FAA looking into this issue because it is one that has been growing out of control for years - airlines packing on more people than their planes can reasonably carry.

Anybody who has flown in a commercial airliner recently and noticed the size of the co-called "carry-ons" that people are bringing with them can easily surmise how FAA's estimates might be understated. Airliners are populated with bigger people packing bigger bags.

So far the only airline that has addressed this issue head on is Southwest, which for the past six months has been charging "persons of size" for two seats if they think they may not fit comfortably in one.

Southwest is the only major airline so far that has taken steps to reduce crowding in its aircraft. Its attention to customer service and satisfaction seem to have struck a chord with the flying public, which has rewarded the airline with better sales and better stock prices than its industry peers. One of the mysteries of modern business is why the other airlines have failed to take note of Southwest's success by following suit and asking overweight passengers to pay their fair share of the costs required to keep them aloft.

The Southwest model is a good one but there are even better examples -- two air transportation companies whose customer satisfaction, sales, and stock prices have been soaring while the rest of the economy has been in a tailspin. United Parcel Service and Federal Express are two of America's most successful transportation companies. They charge their customers by the pound. Maybe the airline companies should adopt that model and charge their customers according to how much they weigh.

If commercial airline passengers knew they could shave a few dollars off the price of their airline ticket by slimming down, who knows, maybe that would be incentive enough to eat less, exercise more, and start carrying smaller bags. These passengers would be healthier, their co-passengers would be happier because they would be less apt to have someone invading their space, aircraft would be safer because they wouldn't be overloaded, and airline profits would improve as the public responded to a higher quality flying experience. All of this adds up to one of those rare scenarios whereby everybody wins. R.S.

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