Tyler Cowen suspects that the airlines’ move away from jammed middle seats means that people don’t really value Covid’s safety. If we valued it, the airlines would be better off continuing to reduce capacity. And other choices people made during the pandemic underscore that, he said, such as moving to relatively open Florida and Texas rather than Vermont.
Different airlines take different approaches to boarding blocking, and each seems rational from its own standpoint. Delta could benefit from this now, as they are the only ones who actually do it. However, as the airlines recoup the cost of keeping seats blocked in the middle, this will not last long, as customers do not prove to be expensive enough to cover these costs.
Backup of blocked interspaces
When planes are empty, it is almost useless to secure the middle seats and this becomes more expensive when planes become full. As long as planes land, adding new flights is not that expensive. As long as the planes land and the federal government subsidizes the airlines’ salaries by requiring them to pay all their employees even if they are not needed on the runway, adding a new flight only increases fuel costs.
At the low point of the pandemic, with empty planes, planes grounded, cheap fuel and wage subsidies, American Airlines’ break-even load factor was 9%. Therefore, the loss of revenue from maintaining the middle seat is small, and simply adding a flight when passenger demand is higher than expected is not worth much.
Southwest Airlines has stopped limiting the number of seats on its planes because of rising costs.
- They estimate that it cost them almost nothing last summer (“minimal impact” of seats stuck in the middle, as evidenced by their appeal to third quarter earnings).
- In the fall, the cost was estimated at $20 million per month.
- And during the November and December holidays, they estimate the value to be between $40 million and $60 million per month.
The cost to the airline of locking the middle seats has increased in the form of lost revenue, and airlines facing these increasing marginal costs have moved away from locking the seats.
Why airlines have different approaches to blocking seats
Delta always blocks the middle seats on the bus until the end of April. They have reduced, but not eliminated, the blocking of seats in first class. Alaska Airlines continues to block seats in the cabins of luxury coaches, but not in first class coaches and not on scheduled buses. Blocking has gone to American (which once went only half way) and Southwest. United Airlines has never tried.
American Airlines believes its value proposition is not the product, but the route network. United Airlines invests in what it sees as an immediate return when the spreadsheet doesn’t show it, and that return is doubled in the case of a pandemic.
Delta is still doing this because it thinks it is earning a revenue premium, the data confirms this – it is earning more than the competition on comparable seat sales. And it may be that Delta earns a clearer premium in this way precisely because they are the only ones who do so by making a clearer distinction.
Locking the seats is just one of the considerations consumers take into account to ensure rooftop safety.
Delta has always been the most reliable major domestic airline, canceling the fewest flights and completing them on time. Their business collapsed again during Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Does it make sense to choose Delta, even for the same price, if they block seats – if that means you need a transfer?
What protection does a locking middle seat actually provide? Humans are not good at assessing risk in the first place. Not only does Delta lock the middle seats, but it has increased outside airflow and improved filtration on the catwalks, cleaned planes between flights more often than most, and is adding hand-cleaning stations on the planes. But United Airlines uses an auxiliary power unit to take advantage of outside airflow and HEPA air filtration not only in flight, but also during landing, waiting to depart, and disembarking.
And even if middle seats were the deciding factor, does it make sense to take two flights instead of one to get a blocked middle seat? Not only does this mean twice as many flights, but it also means more airports that don’t have the same air filtration and outdoor air exchange system as airplanes. It also means more congestion in the access areas. Even for security reasons, it may not make sense to pay for seats blocked in the middle for other reasons.
However, customers do not choose seats that are blocked in the middle when they are offered.
If customers appreciate an empty middle seat, they can just buy an empty middle seat, and few do.
One would think that people would not buy empty seats in the middle for themselves because the process is cumbersome and does not sell well. But the airlines don’t think it’s worth selling to consumers. PlusGrade sells the airlines a tool that allows them to offer blocked middle seats for a fee, or even buy as many cabin seats as they want. A handful of airlines around the world have implemented this tool, but none in the United States.
Free access to the closed center seats is taboo.
Monetizing extra space in the cabins was a social taboo. Frontier Airlines sold it, it was fantastic, and they chose it.
The extra space on the plane is the most important factor in feeling happy during the flight. They don’t mind delays. The service seems better. When the door closes and the seat next to you is still empty, your stress level drops and your sense of satisfaction diminishes. However, we believe it is about comfort and not perceived safety if we can pay for it (buy first class!).
The airlines should clearly be selling this to consumers, but they are not, and they are strangely embarrassed when they try.
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