Airlines should charge passengers to sit next to an empty seat

Last week Friday, American Airlines announced that it would start booking flights to 100% capacity on July 1, 2020. The carrier previously booked the economy class to only 85% capacity, which ensured that about half of the middle seats in the cabin would be vacant. Following the announcement, American Airlines faced criticism from several sources, including the CDC, for putting profits over passenger safety.

I think there’s a much simpler solution to this issue: Charge passengers if they want to sit next to an empty middle seat. Now, just bear with me a bit while I explain my logic here.

All passengers will end up paying for empty middle seats in the long run

This is just simple math. Airlines need an average load factor of 70% to 80% to operate profitably, and they won’t be able to continue blocking all, or even a portion of middle seats without an increase in ticket prices. While low demand has resulted in low ticket prices in the short term, this will not continue indefinitely.

All passengers don’t necessarily benefit from blocked middle seats

If the cost of blocked middle seats is distributed evenly to passengers, passengers will pay for blocked seats even if they don’t benefit from them.

For example, Alaska Airlines is not selling middle seats on any flights. If cost increases are distributed evenly, a solo traveler benefits, but not a family of three that could otherwise sit next to each other and don’t need the distance that an empty middle seat provides.

American Airlines’ previous policy of operating up to 85% capacity in economy is even less equitable. In this example, if costs are distributed evenly across all passengers, passengers pay for an empty middle seat even if they end up sitting next to another passenger.

There’s no evidence that blocking middle seats is effective at preventing COVID spread

There isn’t much evidence in this arena in general. An oft-cited case study in the New England Journal of Medicine does indeed show that viruses can be transmitted between passengers on an airplane. The case highlights a 2003 flight where 18 people developed probable cases of SARS after flying with an infected host on a three hour flight between HKG and PEK.

However, a seat map of that flight (below) shows that a blocked middle seat would have done little to curb the transmission of the virus. The infected host was seated in a middle seat, and neither of the passengers next to him were infected. Most of the passengers infected were two or more rows away from the host. Alarmingly, three of the six passengers in the row in front of the host were infected, which suggests rear-to-front spread may be more likely that side-to-side spread.

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Unlike social distancing policies in restaurants, which are based on some science, the practice of blocking middle seats is rather arbitrary; passengers are still within a six foot radius of other passengers even if the middle seat is blocked

Passengers, not airlines, should decide if they sit next to, and pay for, an empty seat

Given the uncertain benefits of middle seat blocking, passengers should be able to make their own decision if they want to sit next to, and pay for, an empty seat. Older passengers, or passengers with underlying medical conditions may opt to pay to sit next to an empty middle seat – even if the benefits are unclear, while younger healthy travelers, or families of three may decline this option.

Either way, it should be passengers that weigh their personal situation with cost and safety, to determine if they sit next to a middle seat or not. Airlines or the government are in no position to make this decision for passengers.

Shouldn’t people be forced to protect themselves and others as much as possible?

Some may argue that I’m missing the point. Passengers at low-risk for a severe illness resulting from COVID can still pass the virus on to others, including those in at-risk groups. Therefore, airlines should be forced to leave middle seats empty to protect both the passenger and those they come in contact with; we can’t rely on people to pay more to protect themselves and others.

I think this is a fair argument for some safety measures. Masks, for example, are a cost-effective tool that has been proven to reduce COVID spread, and they should absolutely be required on airplanes and in other public areas.

But it’s hard to justify the cost of middle seat blocking given that there’s no evidence that this practice is effective at preventing COVID spread. The New England Journal of Medicine case study actually suggest that this practice would have been ineffective.

Now, while some may find the consideration of economics along with safety to be callous, remember that we make these tradeoffs constantly. For example, while seatbelts and airbags on cars are required, more expensive lane departure warning and automatic braking systems are not. We could also encourage safer driving behavior by increasing the fines for speeding and running a red light to several thousand dollars per ticket, but you don’t hear many clamoring for this. Incurring enormous costs for an arbitrary rule with unproven benefits is not the answer here.

Is this fair?

If implemented, this policy will likely mean that older adults, and passengers with underly medical conditions will pay more to fly. Is this fair?

In my opinion, yes. Charging passengers to sit next to an empty seat directly links the cost of the benefit to those who derive value from the benefit. It also provides a cost-effective option to those that don’t want or need that benefit.

Is it fair that older adults will pay more to fly? It’s just as fair as older adults paying for a medical alert device, or younger adults paying more for car insurance. Some things in life are priced based on risk. This is no different.

Implementation

The best part of this solution is that airlines already have mechanisms in place for adjusting the price of individual seats. There are a few ways this could be implemented.

  • Airlines could designate several rows with empty middle seats, and charge more for seats in these rows.
  • Passengers select the empty seat option while booking, pay for this option, and be seated next to passengers with similar preferences.
  • Passengers with an existing reservation could be presented with an option to upgrade to a seat next to an empty seat.

Either option represents a significant increase in efficiency compared to existing models of seat blocking, and would come with little overhead.

Conclusions

The next time you speak to someone with concerns about flying, ask them two questions:

  1. Will you fly if you’re not able to sit next to an empty seat?
  2. Will you pay 50% more to sit next to an empty seat?

If the person answers “no” to both, don’t expect to see they flying in the long term.

Let’s face it, flying is a luxury, just like dining at a restaurant is a luxury, and going to a movie theater is a luxury. In a world of social distancing, these luxuries must become more expensive because businesses can service only a limited number of customers while their costs remain the same. The approach for this new world should be focused on most efficiently balancing safety with economics; forcing businesses to implement safety measures while demanding static prices will only result in business failures.