Airlines face a tremendous challenge: How do you convince passengers it is safe to squeeze on to an aircraft in the midst of a global health pandemic? Social distancing is the name of the game on the ground, but effecting that in a metal tube is far from trivial. Blocking adjacent/middle seats is a short-term solution, one that several airlines theoretically chose. But it turns out most of them really didn’t block anything, and as passengers are starting to figure that out, the blowback is far worse than the impact of blocking the seats in the first place.
Airlines were careful in their wording, with phrasing like “Limiting seat selections in all cabins, so customers won’t be able to select seats next to each other or middle seats where available.” Sure, that sounds like the middle seat won’t be available, but it only means that the airline won’t assign it in advance. If a full load of passengers show up at the gate then those seats are going to get used.
In recent days that scene played out for Aer Lingus:
In response the carrier announced it would increase frequencies to ensure adequate spacing for passengers, but no clarification on hard sales caps for flights.
American Airlines had a few similar incidents:
And United Airlines also scored a call-out online thanks to full flights:
It turns out that blocking the seats from assignment is not what travelers are looking for. Capping the total capacity of the plane is the desired state. And airlines are, begrudgingly, starting to pursue that option. Even if it still doesn’t reach the 6-foot spacing recommendations.
Fighting for the middle seat
The industry’s trade group says that social distancing on board is overkill. IATA is pushing to see facial coverings as the ultimate solution, not blocked seats. IATA CEO Alexandre de Juniac highlights the group’s data suggesting “neutralizing the middle seat brings no additional guarantee to avoid transmission.” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker pushed that idea 10 days ago on the company’s quarterly earnings call, “Today we’re seeing much more of a push to facial coverings (rather than blocked seats) to make customers comfortable.”
But passengers are listening to other sources. The public health officials that have been calling for social distancing are apparently being heard, with air travelers at least hoping for compliance. Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines mostly did it that way from the start. Following the latest round of online criticisms American Airlines is now capping seats sold on some flights. So are JetBlue and Southwest Airlines.
A technical problem atop the marketing mess
Globally Air New Zealand also blocked the seats, though it is working on an option to allow multiple passengers on the same PNR to occupy adjacent seats, enabling more seats for sale.
FareLogix is also pushing its FLX Merchandising platform as an option for airlines looking for flexibility in such allocations. The system can handle variable “‘travel unit types’ (i.e., family, single, couple)” that require different “distancing logic in which social distancing rules may be relaxed under certain circumstances.”
As with United’s push to offer contactless checked baggage tag printing there are technical hurdles to overcome. The industry is moving remarkably quickly given its generally ancient infrastructure and integration/development challenges. But by the time each move is made it is often too late.
Just charge more??
There’s also a somewhat non-technical approach to the problem: Charge higher fares. While some of the demand is truly essential travel there is significant anecdotal evidence of travelers induced by low fares to hop on a plane. Maybe not a lot of them, but enough that they could represent those filled middle seats in many cases. Airlines are desperate for any revenue, but realizing that through higher fares on fewer seats sold could generate the same cashflow with fewer of these seating problems.
Of course, Frontier tried to charge extra for just blocking the middle seat (something that several airlines sold as an ancillary option prior to the pandemic) and was excoriated for that effort. The company backed off the plan. Charging more on the underlying fare would potentially deliver similar revenue, but without the outrage.
In the meantime, airlines are hamstrung by their conflicting goals of filling planes and convincing travelers that the experience offers spacing and other precautions to ensure safety. It (hopefully) isn’t going to be like this forever. But pictures of full planes are less likely to ensure near-term future bookings.
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