The middle seat has long been the least desirable for Business Travelers. Now that COVID-19 has given us the open middle seat, some are wondering how effective it is — and if it’s here to stay.
Most Business Travelers will do anything to avoid a middle seat. And, when sitting on the aisle or on a window, an open middle seat is seen as a blessing — providing more space for legs and personal belongings.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, many airlines searched for safety measures that would coax more passengers into the friendly skies. As of October, many carriers (like Alaska Airlines, Delta, JetBlue and others) were blocking middle seats to create more space between passengers. But is the open middle seat something we can expect to see well into the future?
Here’s a look at the dynamics of flying in a pandemic — and what Business Travelers can expect to happen with middle seats in the future.
The Economics of the Middle Seat
Traditionally, airlines have crammed as many seats into cabins as possible. The width of seats has narrowed over time, and legroom has become harder and harder to come by in economy classes.
Airlines can’t possibly afford to keep 1/3 of all seats open by blocking the middle, right? Not necessarily. There’s a theory that airlines can’t afford to sell the middle seat. The theory holds that prospective passengers are reluctant to fly right now. If they know the middle seat will be occupied, they will choose a different carrier or choose to not fly at all. But, if they expect an open middle seat, they will be more comfortable flying — and choose to fly more often.
Not all airlines are keeping the middle seat open right now. American, Frontier and United are among carriers that are selling the middle seat. Which middle seat economic theory is correct? Only time will tell.
Does the Distance Make a Difference?
The airlines that are selling the middle seat have this theory: There’s no possible way to create 6 feet of social distance on a plane, as medical experts recommend, so why try at all by keeping middle seats open.
These airlines insist that heavy cleaning and sanitization of plane cabins on a frequent basis is enough to ensure safety and health. When deep cleaning is coupled with a mask mandate, airlines that are selling the middle seat insist that flying is just as safe as everyday tasks like shopping at the grocery store.
Eliminating Middle Seats: Is it Sustainable?
Keeping middle seats open at current fare levels is not sustainable over the long-term. No airline can survive by slashing a large portion of its available seats without raising prices. The question becomes: When will it be safe and advisable to fully open middle seats again?
First, if and when the pandemic subsides, the risks associated with the middle seat should subside, too. This could be when a vaccine is widely available or when rapid testing, mask-wearing and social distancing halt the spread of COVID-19.
Second, there will be economic signals that it’s time to open the middle seat again. Over time, demand for flights should increase, necessitating the opening of the middle seat to accommodate that demand. If passengers continue to fill planes even as the middle seat is available for seating, that will be a strong sign that the days of the open middle seat are through.
Finally, there’s an outside chance that the opening of the middle seat will usher in a new form of flying — more space, more comforts, better safety, better health, higher fares. Once upon a time, not everyone could afford to fly on commercial carriers. Through the decades, planes have expanded to accommodate more passengers, and fares have dropped to the point of affordability for the masses. It’s possible that era is over and that we may see an air travel industry more like what existed in the mid-20th century.
What Passengers Can Do
How should Business Travelers respond to middle seats right now as the pandemic lingers in the United States and nations around the world? The best things Travelers can do right now is show airlines what they want by how they spend. If you want middle seats to remain open, demonstrate it by flying with airlines that continue to keep middle seats empty.
We’re Here to Support Business Travelers
JTB Business Travel specializes in helping companies save money on their travel spend while ensuring team members are as comfortable and productive as possible during trips. We provide hands-on support to Business Travelers before, during and after trips. No matter your travel preferences, we can help you create itineraries that can help you get the most out of business travel.
Contact us today to learn more about how we support Business Travelers.