The hidden costs of saying goodbye to the middle seat

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Is it time to say “so long” to the dreaded middle seat?

Probably not … at least not forever.

But, as with almost everything in these uncertain times, the “pack them in” mentality that’s dominated the airlines for years may be changing. This will at least be true in the short-term, as the aviation industry tries to rebound from the coronavirus pandemic in a new era of social distancing. 

Though travelers may demand more space in the weeks and months following this global health crisis, that extra elbow room could cause ticket prices to soar.

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Temporary changes

Already, two major U.S. airlines – Delta and Alaska Airlines – have officially said they are blocking middle seats on flights. American, too, is blocking many of the middle seats on its flights. Even ultra-low cost carrier Spirit Airlines is blocking middle seats on most flights. United is also planning to implement additional policies by the end of April that will include “limiting seat selection for adjacent seats in all cabins”.

Let that sink in, because it’s as sharp of a turn as all the other major changes we’ve seen in recent weeks. At least until the end of May, you won’t land in a middle seat on multiple domestic carriers as companies try to help passengers keep their distance and mitigate the spread of the virus. Of course, it’s also not too difficult to space out passengers when there are only 10 to 20 people on many flights.

This skip-the-middle trend is not one born and bred solely in the U.S. It’s also taking hold across the Atlantic, where budget carrier EasyJet said it also plans to block middle seats as it ramps up operations once the coronavirus eases.

Still, not everyone is on board.

Another European budget carrier, Ryanair, disagrees with the approach. Its outspoken CEO, Michael O’Leary, told Reuters that blocking the middle seat is “nonsense,” saying airlines would be better served to screen flyers’ temperatures. (There was no mention of how that would help address the percentage of those with coronavirus who appear asymptomatic, at least for a period of time.)

What might happen at Southwest, which famously runs a first-come, first-served open-seating scheme? Middle seats are usually selected last, but still in play if someone sits down.

And, most importantly, what will passengers think when they (cautiously) return to the skies after months of stay-at-home orders, border shutdowns and calls to stay at least 6 feet apart to keep the worst pandemic in a century from spiraling further out of control? Will they even be willing to get on a plane — let alone sit in a middle seat jostling for elbow room and arm rests with the strangers next to them?

Related: What it is like to fly in the US during the coronavirus pandemic

The short answer: Traveler opinion varies just as widely as airline CEO opinions and approaches.

A matter of opinion

In the TPG Facebook Lounge, hundreds of travelers weighed in on what they’d need from airlines when it’s safer to return to the skies. Many hoped airlines would require travelers to wear masks, would provide sanitary wipes and would block off the middle seat.

In addition to masks and wipes, one TPG Lounge member wants to see airlines “[block] middle seats … unless [you’re traveling with] immediate family that you already live with (like your kids).”

Another traveler said she’d want airlines to wipe down planes between flights, block off the middle seats, require all on board to wear masks and take everyone’s temperature prior to boarding. “A [COVID-19] test before boarding would be awesome but not sure it’s practical.”

“Blocked middle seats and at least 6 feet between me and the seat in front of me,” said another reader. “Basically, make flying no longer resemble being in a sardine can.”

One TPG Lounge member hoped airlines would deep clean between flights, provide sanitary wipes at each seat and offer free checked bags “so people aren’t pushing and shoving for carry-on space.” Another request? Blocked-off middle seats. 

Visit TPG’s guide to all coronavirus news and updates

But not all travelers want airlines to restrict middle seat access — or make any concessions at all.

“Nothing,” one reader said. “I just want to be able to fly again. I don’t care how close I have to sit to people.” 

The sentiment was echoed by another TPG Lounge member. “Just let me get on a freaking plane,” she said. “I’ve had it.”

This sentiment wasn’t as rare as you might expect. Many travelers expressed a sense of urgency about flying again. Others felt the responsibility was on the individual, not the airline.

“I would not hesitate to get on a plane with middle seats not blocked,” added another reader. “Even before this virus, I [washed] my hands and sanitize[d] my seat … There isn’t much more I can do beyond that.”

“It is not the responsibility of the airline,” one reader said, suggesting travelers who are sick or more at-risk for complications from COVID-19 shouldn’t fly. “I will take my own precautions if I feel they are necessary — such as a possible face mask and lots of sanitizer.”

While there were outliers in all directions, our informal survey showed that, for travelers who would need airlines to make significant changes before flying again, there are some common requests.

First, they want to trust that airlines are actually thoroughly cleaning the touch points on the planes between flights and overnight. They also want the resources to clean their own seats. For at least as long as disinfecting wipes are a hot commodity, there’s interest in having the airline provide them to each passenger.

Many passengers also seem to desire some safeguard to guarantee obviously sick passengers don’t fly. Whether that takes the form of touchless temperature screenings, forbidding anyone onboard with a cough or even onsite rapid coronavirus tests (as Emirates has introduced), there are many ways this could manifest on airplanes and at the airport.

A requirement for all passengers to wear face masks, as was recently introduced in Canada, seems to be growing in popularity within the U.S., but not yet an issue of total agreement among passengers.

Caught in the middle

Passengers seem to be largely in favor of blocking the middle seat, if only to reclaim some sense of personal space. But others are worried about what that will mean for airfare.

Middle seats have always been the least-desirable seats on the plane, especially if you’re crammed between two strangers. But the degree to which they rank on the misery index has steadily risen in recent years, whether you’re on a budget carrier like Spirit or Frontier or in the back of the plane on an American, Delta or United flight.

And it’s true: Seat pitch has shrunk over the years, coupled with soaring load factors (industry vernacular for how full planes are) that have, in recent years, hit record levels. On average, airlines filled more than 85% of their seats across all flights in 2019, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). That’s the highest count since the government began tracking such numbers.

But however unpopular, those dense configurations have helped passengers to the one thing they seem to value over everything else: cheap fares.

Adjusted for inflation, fares are the lowest they’ve ever been according to federal data. The average itinerary in 2019 cost flyers $354, which the BTS calculates is the cheapest adjusted-for-inflation total since it began tracking fares in 1995. That year the average itinerary would have cost $489 in 2019 dollars, meaning travelers are paying more than 27% less for flights today than they would have 25 years ago. And while $354 was the average cost in 2019, there were plenty of flyers scooping up the $20 fare sales, too.

Those fares are in no small part because airlines are filling more of those middle seats than ever before, and packing economy seats closer together. The high-density seating, combined with high load factors, allows carriers to squeeze more people on to their planes — but to also charge less per passenger while still making more money overall.

Passengers on both legacy and budget carriers have shown time and time again they’ll endure tight and uncomfortable seating layouts if the fare is right. But will that formula be tested by travelers justifiably spooked by coronavirus?

Airlines may face an uncomfortable choice: Keep fares low to win back travelers, but lose money as planes fly much emptier than before. Or increase ticket prices, which would have the predictable effect of dampening demand — especially with a traveling public that’s grappling with the wisdom of flying in the wake of a pandemic.

“Either you fly at the same [ticket] price and lose enormous amounts of money … or you increase the ticket price by 50% and you are able to fly with minimal profit,” said Alexandre de Juniac, director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) trade group that represents the global airline industry.

And if middle seats remained blocked to help curb the virus’s spread, get ready to pay more.

“If social distancing is imposed, cheap travel is over,” he added. “Voila.”

Bottom line

Blocking middle seats or dramatically reducing aircraft density may sound impossible — but grounded airline fleets, decimated route maps and airports that resemble post-apocalyptic ghost towns also seemed like elements of science fiction before they became our new reality.

These changes sounded not just improbable, but absolutely unthinkable even a few weeks ago.

Through this lens, the unthinkable has to be on the table. We know that, in order to reopen and resume operations, theme parks and cruise lines will face massive operational adjustments. Airlines probably won’t be immune to some level of change that’s demanded by society … and perhaps even health and government officials, at least until this pandemic truly is behind us.

Even then, when you’ve been trained to stay at least 6 feet away from people for months or longer, will it be an easy decision to sit shoulder to shoulder with strangers for up to 18 hours?

Many of us have said we’re just seeking a return to “normal.” But what does that look like? For now, it’s still anyone’s guess.

Contributing: Edward Russell, TPG

Featured image by Patrick Fallon/The Points Guy

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