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

May 15, 2020

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

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.

Sign up for the free daily TPG newsletter for more airline news.

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.”

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.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add comments from Rep. DeFazio.

Featured photo by Clint Henderson/The Points Guy.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 80,000 Points

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,600

CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,000 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide, eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,000 toward travel.
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
15.99%-22.99% Variable
Annual Fee
$95
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.