The Department of Transportation has deemed Hawaiian Airlines’ new policy of assigning seats to passengers on flights between American Samoa and Honolulu fair, after the airline found that customers on that route are an average of 30 lbs. heavier than most, according to the Associated Press.
The airline discovered that flights between the two areas were burning an unexpectedly high amount of fuel during the 2,600-mile route, which tipped them off that there could be a safety problem with the weight distribution on board. After conducting a voluntary, Federal Avivation Association-approved survey of passengers for six months, where they weighed willing customers with their carry-on luggage, the airline updated their policy.
“We started noticing that on our Pago Pago [American Samoa’s capital] flights, that the amount of fuel we were using was higher than projected. So that told us that something had changed over the past couple of years,” Alex Da Silva, senior specialist of Hawaiian Airlines’ external communications, tells PEOPLE.
Now, instead of allowing passengers to choose their seats while booking their ticket, Hawaiian Airlines will assign the seats when they check in.
“The actual issue has to do with the linear loads of the aircraft we’re operating, so each row has a maximum weight capacity. And we found out given the current weight, that if we were to seat adults on all eight seats on that row, that could potentially create problems in extreme circumstances like a crash landing,” Da Silva says. “For the regular operations of a regular flight it’s not an issue, but on an abundance of caution that’s why we did this.”
To redistribute the weight, Hawaiian Airlines will try to leave one seat open on each row or place a child in a row with two adults.
The Transportation Department decided that Hawaiian Airlines’ policy is just, because “not offering pre-assigned seats on certain flights is not on its face discriminatory,” spokeswoman Caitlin Harvey tells the AP.
But not everyone agrees.
“What they’re saying is Samoans are obese,” Atimua Migi, who was dropping her father off for the flight from Honolulu to Pago Pago.
The AP reports that Hawaiian Airlines also conducted the survey on flights from Asian airports, but found that their average weight was lower, and passengers can continue to choose their seats.