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Qantas lets you pay $20 to have an empty seat next to you — here’s why it isn’t worth it

Sept. 09, 2022
5 min read
Qantas plane in flight
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How much would you pay to ensure your flying experience wasn’t hampered by a rowdy toddler or chatterbox on the other side of the armrest?

Qantas is betting you'd pay up to $44, with the Aussie carrier announcing it will allow economy flyers on flights within Australia to cough up extra cash to make sure they won’t have a seatmate next to them.

Customers traveling on domestic flights that haven't sold out will receive an email roughly 48 hours in advance of departure to ask if they’d want to purchase a “Neighbor Free Seating option, with prices ranging from 30-65 Australian dollars (roughly $20-$44) to guarantee that sweet elbow space.

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Notably, “Neighbor Free cannot be guaranteed as seats may need to be changed for operational, safety or security reasons, even after boarding the aircraft,” said a Qantas spokesperson.

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JAMES D. MORGAN/GETTY IMAGES

A trial for this service is currently running across six domestic routes over six weeks, covering routes that include Adelaide to Brisbane, Adelaide to Sydney, Darwin to Melbourne, Darwin to Sydney, Gold Coast to Sydney and Perth to Brisbane.

Qantas is testing the program on flights lasting as little as 90 minutes all the way up to four hours. The hope is it will provide a better understanding of what customers are prepared to pay for before the airline looks to roll it out on a wider scale.

But we say: Don’t do it. On the one hand, it’s a pretty ingenious moneymaking move by Qantas. Allowing passengers to pay to sit next to an empty seat they couldn’t get a passenger to fill is arguably great business thinking. Post-COVID-19, it also taps into a mindset where people may want to minimize the chances of their personal space being invaded.

Related: Posh first-class suites and a stretching area: Qantas’ plans for the world’s longest flight

On the other hand, of course, you’re quite literally paying for thin air. You might as well splash out for an empty bottle of Champagne while you’re at it.

Besides, if you've been emailed about a plane that isn’t fully booked there’s a good chance that the seat next to you will be empty regardless, meaning you’d be handing over extra cash for nothing.

Pilot and TPG columnist Charlie Page thinks the smart money is to simply wait until you’re airborne and look if there is an empty row to move to. Just be sure to ask the crew for permission, he says, as “It can really mess up their service plan if people aren’t where they expect them to be."

"This is especially true if you’ve ordered a special meal,” he adds.

SCOTT BARBOUR/GETTY IMAGES

Page also believes that those eager to have a bit more room without paying for it should simply check into a middle seat. “That way it’s unlikely anyone will choose a seat right next to you when there are other options available — you may even get a whole set of three to yourself.”

It’s a gamble, but if you do find your row empty then you can choose any seat you like.

Here are the best ways to increase the chances of getting an empty seat next to you:

  • Book flights at off-peak times.
  • Look for patterns in the seating arrangements when booking. If, for instance, an EasyJet flight has people at the front and at the back, choose a less popular area such as around the wing for a better chance of a vacant adjacent seat.
  • Wait until you’re in the air and then ask an attendant if you can switch to an emptier row.
  • Gamble by booking a middle seat on a chance that people will hope to avoid a middle seatmate.
  • Or, go straight for the window seat? A 2019 study by Thomas Cook found that 61% of 2,000 British travelers preferred a window seat to the aisle or middle seat. By selecting a window seat every time you’re automatically at less risk of stray travelers sitting next to you.

Whatever you do, don’t fall for this scam.

It’s not even a new concept: Since 2017, Etihad has operated a neighbor-free option that allows booking passengers to bid on up to three empty seats adjacent to their seat, with a minimum and a maximum bid amount depending on the booking.

More recently, Emirates joined the party, inviting customers to pay anything from $53 to $161 (plus tax) per empty seat. However, you can only make the payment at a check-in desk on the day of travel.

Bottom line

We can’t blame Qantas, really. Asking customers to pay to shift their fellow passengers around the cabin like hot potatoes is simply smart business acumen. Just don’t get suckered into it.

If you do find yourself sampling some of the Gold Coast or dropping by Sydney anytime soon, then by all means fork out a little extra to get a good window seat and drink in those views. However, in our opinion, it isn’t worth paying an airline extra for an empty seat that they couldn’t already sell.

Of course, there are exceptions. If you just had a sleepless long-haul flight to Australia that has already set you back thousands of dollars and you wouldn’t mind guaranteeing a modicum of peace on a connecting flight, then go for it. Personally, we’d probably avoid it.

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

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