Blocking out middle seats: to be or not to be?


IATA has taken to the stage to rebuff the logic and economics behind keeping middle seats free on aircraft this week. But could we risk losing the audience by ruling out any social distancing measure at this stage says Max Gosney, GHI Chairman

“To block them out or book them out: that is the question facing airlines on middle seats. IATA has entered the stage this week to deliver its own soliloquy on why prohibiting seats ‘B’ and ‘E’ is more delusional than the Prince of Denmark himself in Hamlet act I, scene V.

Granted, the airline association might be right. Blocking middle seats still leaves passengers seated at aisle or window just a perilous 50cm apart, a mere hop skip and a jump for any itinerant viral droplets. IATA says it supports onboard social distancing in the form of face masks and simplified catering regimes, but declares leaving middle seats empty both costly and unnecessary.

For me, there’s much more at stake here than middle seat occupancy alone. The public are petrified of picking up this cruel virus, particularly during air travel. And, as an industry, now is surely the time for us to display deep empathy and understanding. We need to be reassuring our customers that we will do whatever it takes, whatever it costs, to keep them safe and well as part of our duty of care. Because your health and safety – as our prized customers – always comes first.

To react instead by reaching for the tape measure to quibble over the viable transmission barrier between adjacent passengers or cry foul over cost risks us looking callous at best, mercenary at worst.

For now, the only thing you can say with some degree of certainty that the jury is out on the scientific evidence for the ease with which Covid-19 spreads within an aircraft cabin. What’s irrefutable is that people are craving definitive and highly visible action from our sector that makes them feel protected. Note that some of these steps may be purely symbolic, scientifically questionable and serve only to make a passenger feel like we’re doing more.

But blocking out middle seats is financially untenable, opponents might counter. IATA states that the resulting cap on load factors would mean carriers having to increase fares by 43%-54% average to cover their costs. Okay so let’s play this one out with a little thought experiment.

Airline A rules middle seat blocking economically unviable and carries on seating passengers cheek to jowl just like in the good old days. Airline A lures passengers with cheap air fares, just like Covid-19 never happened, while sprinkling in plenty of marketing messages about taking passenger safety seriously and offering a few free face masks in the on-board services.

Then there’s Airline B, which does the difficult thing. The airline decides that without definitive scientific consensus, it can’t take a chance on customer well-being just yet. So, it blocks out middle seats, for the interim at least. Airline B explains to its passengers that it won’t take a chance, no matter how miniscule, on their wellbeing. In return, it asks people to pay a little more, maybe £50 on a ticket on short haul flights.

At the same time airline B doubles down on operational efficiency and looks at smarter ways to reduce cost in the way it taxis, cross trains staff or manages its fleet (see the seven lean wastes). Any savings are used to narrow the air fare gap with its rivals.

Six months down the line, which airline is doing better? Many will believe vehemently that it’s still airline A, as it can keep attracting a customer base hooked on low air fares. Plus ca change. But, if the world has changed with this pandemic – as we all accept – then only airline B has changed with it.

People who were hooked on flying from London Luton to Lanzarote for less than £25 may have lost loved ones to the coronavirus or become au fait with social distancing in the supermarket. They feel vulnerable, scared and spending £60 more to ‘feel’ safer going on their summer holidays is going to be a different proposition post-pandemic.

A final word on some of the science around Covid-19 spread on flights. It would be wonderful to believe, as IATA sets out, that seats act as a barrier to virus spread and the air flow currents in a cabin prohibit passage of the infection. To reach the conclusion that aircraft cabins are virus resistant areas. Yet, we simply can’t know that for sure just yet.

And, even if just some of the thesis proves true then a seasoned air traveller will tell you there’s a margin of error. For example, a middle seat passenger can migrate sideways in the night and bring their potentially infected air right into your vicinity. Also, not every aircraft is a brand spanking new A350 with hospital grade air filtration. You sometimes fly in a beaten up 747 where you are lucky if you twist the overhead climate control knob and it doesn’t fall off in your hand.

So, let us see what the scientific community can definitively tell us about the make-up of Covid-19 in due course. Until then everything – middle seat blocking included – should be on the table in our unyielding mission to make the air travelling public feel entirely safe in our charge.

Let’s play for the ages not the gallery. Anything less, especially muddling social distancing objections in with cost, and we risk the accusation that: ‘the lady doth protest too much, me thinks.”.

What do you think? Email