Friday,  December 4, 2020  1:03 pm

Charging extra for a middle-seat-free flight: irresponsible or a stroke of genius?

Charging extra for a middle-seat-free flight: irresponsible or a stroke of genius?
Would you pay more for a guaranteed middle-seat-free experience? (Stock Photo/Unsplash)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

In this day and age of social distancing and heightened hygiene awareness, the need for personal space to halt the spread of COVID-19 has never been greater.

So chew on this: if you could have a guaranteed middle-seat-free experience on an airplane, even if it cost more, would you fork out the extra dough to do so?

This is a concept Canadian ultra-low cost carrier (ULCC) Flair Airlines adapted last week.

Since May 27th, passengers have had the option to book a middle-seat-free flying experience in rows two to six on Flair’s Boeing 737-800 aircraft for an extra charge of $49 (CAD).

"Comfort Choice Seating,” as Flair calls it, is a first for the Edmonton-based airline. However, the idea of paying more for an open middle seat, at least within the context of the coronavirus crisis, has been entertained before.

Flair's Comfort Choice Seating gives passengers the option of a middle-seat-free experience. (Supplied)

In early May, U.S.-based Frontier Airlines, a low-cost carrier headquartered in Denver, Colorado, introduced a similar (if not same) concept.

Frontier’s offer was called the "More Room" option, which allowed passengers to buy an empty middle seat next to them for $39 USD.

While shrouded in buzzwords like “peace of mind” and “more options,” the plan flopped in the eyes of the people’s court as U.S. lawmakers and social media ripped Frontier a new one, accusing the airline of profiting on people’s pandemic fears.

Democratic lawmakers Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Rep. Jesús García, D-Ill., called it a “misguided policy,” insisting that "the flying public should not be charged extra to stay healthy on flights."

In a letter, Frontier CEO Barry Biffle later stated “we simply wanted to provide our customers with an option for more space.”

In the end, Frontier scrapped the idea.

One month later 

So here we are today, about one month later, and Flair is doing the same thing.

It’s bold, not only in light of the Frontier drama, but also because other Canadian airlines (at least the ones that are flying) have automatically blocked the middle seat from being sold altogether.

Air Canada and WestJet, both of which are still flying select routes, have adapted this protocol in the name of offering passengers more personal space and to answer the call for physical distancing, as advised by health officials.

Both airlines have these policies in effect until the end of June. Afterwards, they could either end it or extend it.

Air Transat, which has temporarily suspended its activities until June 30th, is still looking at its middle seats and was unable to comment, at this time, on what measures it may take. 

To be fair to Flair, a lot has changed since Frontier’s PR fiasco. 

Society’s anxieties over COVID-19 (while legitimate and still very real) tempers week by week, especially as provinces enter the early stages of reopening businesses. 

There are also vast differences between Frontier and Flair.

Frontier is, notably, a bigger airline, serving thousands (if not millions) of people to some 100 destinations in the U.S. and overseas (it’s the eighth-largest commercial airline in America). 

Flair, in comparison, flies domestic only, serving 11 destinations.

Airplanes, currently, are far less full than normal, which begs the question if personal space is even an issue in the skies right now.

But that’s beside the point. What this comes down to, at least in Flair’s eyes, is giving the people what they want.

“Our call centre was getting 3,000 calls per day, with the majority of people asking, ‘How can I guarantee that no one sits next to me?’” John Mullins, vice-president, customer experience and airports at Flair Airlines, tells PAX. “The big thing is offering a choice.”

This, while also recognizing that everything about discount airlines is about paying for add-ons, from checked baggage to seat selection.   

The middle-seat-free experience is compatible with Flair’s 3x3 configuration and it won’t interest everyone.

Families and couples will, presumably, want to sit together. Some simply don’t buy that a seats-worth of personal space lowers the risk of COVID-19 transmission on an airplane. 

Still, you can’t deny that some consumers are (and will be) nervous to fly, especially in these early stages of re-opening the travel economy.

A recent Nanos Research survey (commissioned by Flair) found that Canadians have been hesitant to fly due to recent events.

So if passengers are willing to pay a little extra for an empty middle seat, if only for peace of mind, then what’s the harm?

“People want an option without being gouged,” says Mullins.

John Mullins, vice-president, customer experience and airports at Flair Airlines. (Supplied)

Does seat blocking make sense? 

The debate over what to do about middle seats in the era of COVID-19 is a lively one.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) doesn’t like the idea of blocking middle seats, arguing on May 5th that mask-wearing by passengers and crew is enough to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection.  

IATA has also warned of the “dramatic cost increases” that on-board social distancing would bring to air travel.

This is something that doesn’t exactly fit into the ULCC model.

The whole idea is to minimize operating costs, charge extra for frills and, in turn, offer an unbundled fare that’s 20 to 40 per cent less than major network carriers.

If Flair were to block the sale of its middle seats – one-third of its aircraft – “we’d have to increase our prices by 50 per cent,” says Mullins.

Within this context, charging a fee for wanting an open middle seat makes sense.

You also can’t blame Flair for adapting an offer that keeps prices competitive, even in the midst of a pandemic. Flair’s Toronto-Vancouver service, for example, shows savings of up to $250 dollars per ticket compared to offers from the major carriers, as Mullins points out.

“For a family of four that gets to travel once a year, that’s a big deal,” says Mullins. “Margins are slim. If we strip out 30 per cent [of our seats], we’d have to increase prices to a point where the travelling public won’t be able to afford it. It’s unsustainable.”

Flair isn’t the only player in this debate. Irish budget airline Ryanair has also spoken out against blocking the sale of middle seats.

Last April, CEO Michael O'Leary said blocking middle seats was “idiotic,” arguing that it does not guarantee a two-metre distance between passengers.

Moreover: "We can't make money on 66 per cent load factors," he told the Financial Times.  

Fuzzy facts

The effectiveness of social distancing, via seat blocking, on airplanes to ward off COVID-19 is still a little fuzzy.  

One could assume that sitting shoulder-to-shoulder next to a person would enable the virus to spread, but this may not be this case, as Jean-Brice Dumont, a chief engineer at Airbus, has pointed out.

Modern-day aircrafts, Dumont says, are designed to keep air clean.

“Every two to three minutes, mathematically, all the air is renewed," Dumont told the BBC on May 29th. "That means 20 to 30 times per hour, the air around you is completely renewed."

The direction of air flow combined with its passage through HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters also minimizes the risk of transmission, he says.

This, combined with passengers and crew wearing masks (which is currently mandatory in Canada), is enough to minimize exposure, Mr. Dumont says, arguing that a middle-seat-free experience doesn’t really add to risk reduction.

The effectiveness of social distancing, via seat blocking, on airplanes to ward off COVID-19 is widely disputed. (Stock photo/Unsplash)

Still, this claim, too, has been disputed.

Dr. Julian Tang, a virologist at the Leicester Royal Infirmary, argues that HEPA filters don’t capture all COVID-19 droplets before passengers can breathe them in.

"The problem is that if you're sitting next to somebody - 0.6 metres in economy, say - who's coughing and sneezing in that immediate area, that aerosol will reach you before it has time to reach the filtration system, get filtered and come back down again," said Dr. Tang, also speaking to the BBC.

But back to O'Leary’s point: how does seat blocking, exactly, ensure the recommended two-metre distance for preventing COVID-19 infection? 

There’s also other factors to consider when tracking this virus on airplanes.  

One can inhale infected droplets in the airport; or while disembarking the plane; or from touching a contaminated surface; or while engaging with cabin crew, who are always in motion, facing multiple people.

How does Flair view the middle-seat-free experience? “It enables separation,” says Mullins, reiterating that this is something customers want (at least right now).

A stroke of genius?

Travellers have been canoodling themselves up next to strangers in economy for years.  

The promise to not get a middle seat next to someone who may be speaking moistly may not so much be about science as it is about optics, especially as the demand for air travel plummets to unprecedented levels.

Right now, airlines need to go above and beyond to restore consumer confidence.

Major Canadian carriers have unveiled never-before-seen health and safety protocols, from mandatory temperature checks to high-grade sanitization procedures to social distancing initiatives.

And seat blocking, for the purpose of offering passengers peace of mind and separation, plays an important role in that narrative. No one's dismissing that. 

But it's not a one-size-fits-all approach either. What an international carrier does with its middle seats may not necessarily work for a domestic ULCC like Flair.

The question is: how long will airlines need to dance around the fate of their middle seats? 

Your guess is as good as mine. 

As far as Flair’s $49 middle-seat-free option goes, it’s in the people’s hands. (“We’ll run this as long as the travelling public supports us,” says Mullins).

Besides, who likes the middle seat anyway? Unless you’re in good company, that spot is a drag.

Really, with the right configuration, under the right logistics, bound to a firm understanding of the risk, and for a reasonable price, charging for a guaranteed middle-seat-free experience in economy isn’t such a bad idea.

At least until airlines find their footing out of this mess and consumer demand returns.

Upgrade-seekers will love it and if it generates enough revenue to prevent ticket prices from ballooning, then why not?

If there’s a time for creative thinking, it’s now.

Just imagine: no more rubbing elbow hairs. More real estate for storing books, sweaters and snacks. A few extra inches to stretch the leg.  

Coronavirus or no coronavirus, I’ll pay.

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