Does The End Of Middle Seat Blocking Mean Passengers Don’t Value Covid Safety?

Tyler Cowen suggests that airlines moving away from blocked middle seats means people don’t really value Covid safety. If we did, it would be profitable for airlines to continue limiting capacity. And, he suggests, other choices people have made during the pandemic underscore this, like moving to relatively open Florida and Texas rather than Vermont.

Different airlines take different approaches to seat blocking, and each seems rational from their own perspective. Delta may be benefiting now from it since they’re the only one left really doing it. However as air travel recovers the cost of maintaining blocked middle seats rises, so it won’t last, because customers don’t seem to value it enough to cover this cost.

The Economics Of Blocked Middle Seats

When planes are empty blocking middle seats is almost costless, and gets more expensive as planes fill up. While planes are grounded, it doesn’t cost as much to add new flights. While planes are grounded and the federal government is subsidizing airline payroll, requiring them to pay all of their employees even when those employees aren’t needed to work, adding a new flight really means just the incremental cost of fuel.

During the depths of the pandemic, with empty planes, grounded aircraft, cheap fuel and payroll subsidies the break-even load factor for American Airlines was 9%. So there’s little revenue lost by middle seat blocking, and it doesn’t cost much to just add a flight if passenger demand grows beyond expectation.

Southwest Airlines stopped limiting the number of seats they were selling on planes because the cost to them was rising.

  • They believe it cost them almost nothing to do last summer (“minimal impact” from blocked middle seats, as reported in their third quarter earnings call).

  • In the fall the cost was measurable at $20 million per month.

  • And for the holidays in November and December they believe it cost $40 to $60 million per month.

The cost to an airline to block middle seats, in terms of foregone revenue went up and airlines facing these rising marginal costs moved away from seat blocking.

Why Airlines Take Different Approaches To Seat Blocking

Delta continues blocking middle seats in coach until the end of April. They’ve reduced but not eliminated first class seat blocking. Alaska Airlines still blocks seats in the premium part of their coach cabin, but not first class or regular coach. Blocking is gone on American (which only ever did it halfway) and Southwest. United Airlines never tried it.

American Airlines believes its value proposition is its route network not its product. United Airlines invests in what it can see generates immediate return, if it isn’t evident in the spreadsheet they do not do it, and that’s doubly true during the pandemic.

Delta still does it because they believe they generate a revenue premium, the data bears this out – they earn more for comparable seat sales than competitors. And Delta may even earn a clearer premium doing so precisely because they’re the only ones left doing it, drawing a clearer distinction.

Seat Blocking Is Only One Consideration A Consumer Makes For Covid Safety

Delta has traditionally been the most reliable major domestic airline, cancelling the fewest flights and operating on time. Their operation melted down over Thanksgiving and again at Christmas.

Does it make sense to choose Delta, even at the same price, when they block seats – if it means you have to connect?

How much protection does a blocked middle seat really provide you? People are bad at evaluating risk in the first place. delta doesn’t just block middle seats, they’ve increased outside airflow and improved filtration on jet bridges, clean planes more between flights than most, and have been adding hand sanitizer stations on planes. But United Airlines runs the auxiliary power unit on the ground to take advantage of outside airflow and HEPA air filtration not just inflight but while passengers are boarding, waiting for departure, and deplaning.

And even if middle seats were most dispositive, would it make sense to take two flights instead of one to get a blocked middle? That doesn’t just mean twice as many flights, it means transiting more airports which don’t have the same air filtration and outside air exchange that planes have. It means more crowding in gate areas, too. Even where safety tradeoffs are concerned, blocked middle seats may not make sense to pay for given other considerations.

Customers Don’t Choose To Pay For Blocked Middle Seats When Offered, Though

If customers value an empty middle seat they could just buy the empty middle seat and yet few do.

You might think people don’t buy empty middle seats for themselves because the process is cumbersome and poorly marketed. But airlines don’t think it’s worth marketing to consumers. PlusGrade sells airlines a tool that lets them offer blocked middle seats for a charge, or even let customers purchase as many seats as they want in the cabin. A handful of airlines around the world have rolled this out but none in the United States.

Unbundled Access To Blocked Middle Seats Is Taboo

Monetizing extra space in the cabin is a social taboo. Frontier Airlines marketed it, it was a fantastic value and they filleted for doing so.

Extra space on a plane is the single greatest determinant of happiness with a flight. You don’t mind delays as much. Service seems better. When the door shuts and the seat next to you is still empty stress levels fall and a sense of satisfaction descends. Yet it’s only something we consider it ok to pay for (buy first class!) when it’s for comfort, not marketed for perceived safety.

Airlines should be selling this explicitly to consumers but do not, and are oddly shamed for it when they try.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. There was a time when UA quasi blocked seats purchased by golds and above – they were not selectable prior to flight and were the last to be assigned on full flights.

    This unpubished quasi benefit was FAR better than access to economy plus.

  2. I still don’t know why Delta may not have achieved a huge bump in bookings over other carriers. Because, Covid19 or no covid, who would not want a guaranteed empty seat?

    I still don’t think 90% of Americans (maybe more) really understand that Delta is now the only one offering this benefit. I doubt very few if anyone in my office knows this. They have not heavily advertised it to the masses, and the media has only slightly covered it. Sio yes people that follow aviation know it, but normal people don’t.

    If they marketed the h*** out of it and told people the story you would have an open seat next to you, then it would be interesting to observe consumer behavior.

    I have DL Diamond and AA Exp and at the beginning of the pandemic I flew to fly with AA because they offered spirits in first class, and DL only offered beer, wine, and water. I was banking I would get upgrade on AA and I was nearly 100% right. I would probably have gotten upgraded on DL, but I wanted that glass of spirits!

  3. You’re a smart guy Gary. You know better. It’s a false premise that middle seat blocking means covid security. As someone else pointed out, it just theater.

    Once airlines have enough passangers to start filling the middle seats, they will be sold.

  4. I totally get the comfort and stress argument. Covid safety concerns aside. If offered, there are many times I would split the cost of a middle seat with the other person in the row. Would be a nice option when selecting a seat.
    “Would you be willing to share the cost of the middle seat in this row?” CHECK.

  5. All blocking the middle seat does is give people more space. Yes it may reduce the risk of covid transmission by a minimal amount since now you have one less person in close proximity to you (and to a lesser extent you also are likely to have less total people on the plane so that is less people to be potentially exposed to when using restroom, boarding/deboarding the plane etc) but if the other person in the row has covid guess what you are still being exposed. That space in the middle isn’t going to save you.

  6. The “break-even” load factor is not and never was 9%. That’s the load factor at which it makes sense to operate the flight compared to parking the aircraft, but either option still results in a lot of cash burn. Marginal load factor, sure, but not “break-even.” Very misleading to people who may think airlines are profitable now.

  7. It’s not theatre if THe person next to you has COVID with or without symptoms it’s extra high risk
    It’s approx 20 minutes to being infected according to what I have read

  8. “People are bad at evaluating risk in the first place.”

    Something that you and your blog has proven over the past year.

  9. I assume there is some sort of relation between distancing and the chance of a virus traveling in the air to be inhaled.

    I can’t imagine it is 0% at 6ft and anything less is 100% ineffective.

  10. Having flown one trip on SWA with unblocked seats and several on Delta with blocked seats the difference is not safety, but in a calmer less crowded gate / boarding process. Blocked middle seats means no anxiety on overhead space and no rushing to board. One affect of this is not having a second thought when booking a Basic Economy fare, you won’t be stuck in a middle seat and there will be space for a carry on. The math for Delta is on the routes that would be lightly loaded, does the fare premium they gain for blocked seats outweigh the income form 5 or 10 additional passengers?

  11. Given that none of the big 6 legacy and low cost airlines (AA, AS, B6, DL, UA and WN) reported load factors higher than 65% – which is about the percent of capacity that DL is making available for sale – in the 4th quarter, Delta is simply putting a cap that reflects seats that can’t be sold at any price except on Spirit – which reached 71% – and Delta is getting a fare premium in the process.

    There is still way too much capacity in the system. Seat blocking is just a means to get some people to pay more – whether for extra space or as a perceived disease mitigation strategy.

    Delta also says it is getting a higher percentage of industry business traffic than it has ever had and I can attest from my own flights experiences on multiple airlines during the pandemic that there are more business travelers on Delta than on other airlines.

  12. There is a market failure of humongous proportions.

    On a 200-seater plane there’s 1 asymptomatic infectious COVID passenger on average (about 0.5% to 1% of the US population is infected with COVID and shedding the virus at the moment, about 60% of them asymptomatically).

    Airlines are both infecting passengers (yes, you’re likely to get COVID if you’re seated within a few seats or rows of such person) and introducing and spreading the various variants to places the USA. Yet they’re PAYING NOTHING for the immense costs and misery they’re causing and for extending one of the most colossal recessions in history (the US could be like New Zealand or Australia or China or many other countries who grounded planes). To the contrary, they’re receiving subsidies from the idiotic government of the US subsidizing $19 fares who spread COVID around.

  13. Jake,
    are you hiding in your basement to avoid this disaster you see?

    You do realize that case counts are falling dramatically -which is what viruses do after a period of time?

    You also realize we have no idea of the total number of collateral deaths because of lockdowns – including suicides, divorces, increases in other diseases….? So many people have been fixated on covid for so long that they forget (or ignore) that there are other things going on in line.

    No, the market is working just fine. People are tired of being locked down, are going where they have a chance of engaging in some semblance of normal – both on vacation and permanent moves, and some people are willing to pay more for more space in the midst of very low demand whether driven by attempts to run from the disease or not.

    No, jake, the market is working just fine.

  14. @Tim Dunn

    How can you say the market is working just fine while the government is imposing massive restrictions on it?

    For what it’s worth, I flew from London to Milan a couple weeks ago on British Airways. Pre-flight testing was required and all arriving passengers were given PCR tests after passing border controls in Italy. I was just notified yesterday that there was someone from that flight who tested positive for the B.1.1.7 (“UK”) variant. I take it that either the person had recovered from COVID-19 and the PCR test picked up the remnants of that infection or that he was not yet carrying a high viral load from a developing infection in the lead-up to the flight. LHR T5 had just one lounge operating with all dining a la carte. The catering in Club Europe was much improved from last summer, when the main offering was a sandwich. The flight was fairly full, but I had no seatmate in “business,” nor did the passenger across the aisle from me.

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