Frontier Airlines Is Right To Charge An Optional Social Distancing Fee

Through August 31 Frontier Airlines is offering customers the option of paying for an empty middle seat, priced at $39. This is being compared to other airlines blocking middle seats for free. However that’s not a fair comparison. And all of the criticism over the airline for ‘charging for safety’ makes no sense.

There are two basic points here in defense of Frontier. First, an empty middle seat isn’t protection anyway so why require it? Second, why make everyone pay for that extra space instead of just allowing those people who are reassured by it to pay?

An empty middle seat is not protection. In 2003 22 cases of SARS are thought to have come from a single Boeing 737 flight indeed,

[T]he risk for those in the three rows in front of the man pwho had SARS], or the same row, was much higher than for those sitting elsewhere. But two people seated as far as seven rows in front of him were also infected, as were two flight attendants.

Having a foot and a half of space between you and someone else isn’t six feet, and it doesn’t help you if the person in the row behind you (or two) coughs.

There’s a limited amount of space on the aircraft, and fixed costs for flying that plane. If one passenger takes up space they either need to pay for that extra space or everyone has to pay for it. Frontier’s strategy is to make the cost optional, rather than mandatory for everyone. For a decision that’s more about personal comfort than safety it doesn’t seem appropriate to mandate everyone pay.

I’d made several other points about this.

  • $39 is a really good price, considering most tickets cost more than that. Frontier is willing to sell customers that empty middle and risk not selling a ticket at full price (and collect all those sweet sweet ancillary fees from another passenger).

  • American Airlines will only limit the number of passengers on each flight through May 31 and only rolled that out on Thursday. Prior to that they blocked middle seats, but wouldn’t cap the number of passengers, so if they sold enough tickets on a flight they’d unblock those seats at the gate. A Frontier Airlines guarantee is better even if it comes at a price.

  • Airlines have sold extra seats to passengers for years, but that’s at regular price. $39 is a nice discount in most cases.

Copyright: zhukovsky / 123RF Stock Photo

Back in mid-March I suggested that giving elite frequent flyers empty middle seats would be a great benefit. That’s space available, though I’d probably pay $39 to confirm an empty middle on a flight over 2 hours anyway.

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. So unless you’re willing to pay extra, it is reasonable for the airline to put you in an unsafe situation?

    That seems to be your argument.

    Packed planes only made some sense healthwise before the virus.

  2. When a flight is oversold, will Frontier Airlines advise you they have now sold your reserved middle seat to accommodate a passenger? I would then expect Frontier Airlines to refuse a cash refund of your $39 reserved middle seat fee but instead offer you a voucher for future flight before the voucher validity expires.

  3. @Tom K

    Looks like you missed Gary’s point (or didn’t read) before commenting.

    18inches != 6 feet. So an empty middle is insufficient for social distancing anyways.
    If you want to properly socially distance, you’d need to buy out your row, the two rows behind you, and the two rows in front of you, as the NYTimes gif displays.
    So an empty middle is primarily a feel-good situation – like everyone sharing the same tongs at a buffet.

  4. The bonus for F9 is that they may actually get as much as $78 if both the window and aisle pax opt for the “empty middle seat” option. You won’t know whether they made out until you get on the plane and meet your row-mater. Genius. 😀

  5. @Jon When flying on Frontier Airlines, I would have said: So an empty middle is primarily a feel-good situation – like everyone sharing the same FINGERS at a buffet.

  6. Frontier is like Ron Paul with their absurd dedication to their principles(fees, in this case)

  7. This has been done on other airlines for years (Allegiant in the USA, though at a variable fee), and Vueling in Europe (which,I believe but am not certain, collects 2 fees only if 2 people are willing to pay).
    We flew nonstop from Paris to Santiago, Spain, and for $30 more each, my friend and I each had the entire 2nd row(6 seats) to ourselves and an entire empty 1st row.
    Not bad at all after already traveling for 24 hours.

  8. Unfortunately, the free market / user-pays philosophy that we’ve bought into for 50 years or so, is not going to help us in a pandemic. Public health outcomes, as we’ve seen, are thwarted by the free market – just look at the disastrous American response in obtaining and distributing PPE and masks.

    Ultimately, I don’t want or trust the private sector to tell me that it’s OK to be squashed into an aircraft, when we’re being told it isn’t safe to go to a movie theatre or board a subway.

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