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Middle seats are blocked now, but don't expect that to last long

May 15, 2020
4 min read
Alaska Airlines Economy SFO-EWR
Middle seats are blocked now, but don't expect that to last long
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Editor's Note

This story has been updated to add comments from Rep. DeFazio.

There’s been lots of talk about airlines blocking seats as they try to allow for social distancing onboard.

Some airlines, like Delta and Alaska, are actually blocking middle seats by capping sales. Others, like United, simply block them from advance seat assignments, but say they could end up being occupied if flights are too full.

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The array of policies has led some to wonder if these changes might become permanent – or if airlines might even reconfigure planes to remove middle seats altogether.

The dreaded middle seat is less likely to be in your immediate future as demand for travel remains suppressed, but experts say you shouldn't count on them being relegated to the annals of aviation history in the longer term.

Guide: U.S. airline social distancing policies.

Already, some airline CEOs have chimed in.

Ryanair's Michael O'Leary told the Financial Times last month that he thinks blocking middle seats is "idiotic." He said doing so doesn't even meet basic public health guidelines for social distancing, and would be a serious problem for airlines' finances.

"We can't make money on 66% load factors," he said. "If middle seats are empty, we're not returning to flying at all."

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Related: You’ll have to ask permission to use the toilet when Ryanair resumes flights in July.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global aviation trade group, said that it strongly opposes blocking middle seats into the future.

“Airlines are fighting for their survival. Eliminating the middle seat will raise costs. If that can be offset that with higher fares, the era of affordable travel will come to an end," Alexandre de Juniac, IATA's CEO said in a statement. "On the other hand, if airlines can’t recoup the costs in higher fares, airlines will go bust. Neither is a good option when the world will need strong connectivity to help kick-start the recovery from COVID-19’s economic devastation."

Related: Cobranded credit cards may help airlines recover from coronavirus.

Henry Harteveldt, president of travel analysis firm Atmosphere Research, agreed that in the long term, middle seats are here to stay and will be filled. But as long as COVID-related travel panic continues, airlines will have to respond.

“In the near term, a terrified traveling public views people in middle seats as a threat to their health and well-being," he said. “It will be interesting to see if people prefer airlines that leave middle seats empty."

At least one member of congress is weighing in on the debate, too. Representative Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), sent open letters to Airlines for America and the National Air Carrier's Association. He suggested those organizations encourage their members to block middle seats while COVID-19 remains a major public health concern.

"Filling planes with travelers who are paying rock-bottom, below-cost airfares, simply to boost load factors or preserve market share, both exacerbates losses and endangers public health and welfare. And that strategy has never delivered an airline from insolvency; in fact, it has driven many out of business," he wrote. "The pandemic requires short-term adjustment on the part of every stakeholder, and the sooner we can defeat this insidious virus, the sooner the American public will feel confident about buying airline tickets and traveling again."

As with most other things, even in the near future, the outlook for middle seats will be a business decision for airlines. If passengers are willing to pay a premium for more space, carriers will be under less pressure to fill every seat. But, if travelers continue to value low fares above all else, even before a coronavirus vaccine is widely available, airlines will probably do what's best for their bottom lines.

Read more: How radically could air travel change? These questions from Delta offer some insights.

But one day, Harteveldt said, planes will be flying full again.

"Airlines can’t afford to leave a third of their product unavailable for sale for a sustained period of time. That is simply uneconomic and it is not viable from a business perspective.”

So when it's safe to travel again, try to enjoy less crowded planes while you can. The extra room isn't likely to last.

Featured image by (Photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy)