One Elite Benefit That Would Help Bring Back Airline Passengers

When I first started flying United regularly in the mid-1990s, all elites had a benefit known as middle seat blocking. When an elite frequent flyer picked a window or aisle seat in coach (in a row that was at least 3-across), the middle seat next to them would be blocked.

That wasn’t a guarantee of an empty middle seat. Blocked seats could be assigned at the gate if necessary. On a flight that was mostly full elite frequent flyers wouldn’t get a free seat next to them. However, given load factors at the time, this worked out more often than not.

At the end of 2007 Mileage Plus (back when there was a space between the two words) ended this benefit. Before the Great Recession hit planes were getting quite full, and they weren’t delivering on it nearly often enough. And needing all those middle seats it was added work at the gate to assign seats. Of course that was right before load factors began to fall as the economy cratered.

  • The number one thing that determines the experience of a passenger in coach is having an empty seat next to them. The (buy on board) food tastes better. The service seems friendlier. Even delays seem more manageable.

  • Airlines are planning for less revenue and less capacity. They’re expecting to have empty seats even after concern over coronavirus passes. That’s a perfect time to make the number one experiential benefit available again to an airline’s best customers, on a space-available basis.


Mostly Empty American Airlines Domestic Coach Cabin

There are a number of social norms that may change as a result of the social distancing many of us are practicing at the moment.

  • Contactless payments could really take off, and become differentiators. Forget chips, who wants to actually touch a key pad?

  • We might be used to really washing our hands that we keep doing it. Remember when we’d tell ourselves a quick rinse was washing? That was just two weeks ago.

  • We may not want to be so close to fellow passengers. All of a sudden 10-abreast Boeing 777s and 9-abreast Boeing 787s don’t seem like such a great idea, rubbing should-to-shoulder with strangers. And even if we’d rather be three to six feet away from other passengers, don’t a few extra inches at least feel better?


United Airlines 10-Across Boeing 777-300ER Coach Cabin

The potential to have empty planes, at a time when consumer preferences may be changing to place an emphasis on personal space, could really generate an opportunity for consumer loyalty. Once we’re past the fear stage bring back ‘middle seat blocking’ at least for mid-tier elites combined with a good status matching campaign and promotion of the benefit and test so see whether or not there’s share shift.

In the meantime, while fares are extra low, just buy the empty middle seat next to you.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »

Pingbacks

Comments

  1. This won’t happen in the E+ world. They would rather upsell someone a middle E+ seat than block it. Perhaps it could be a way for an elite member to choose an E- seat so they can upsell an E+ window/aisle but I would not gamble a good E+ seat for a potentially blocked E- seat.

    The real issue that needs to be addressed is how if you buy a basic Y ticket you are more likely to end up in an E+ seat for free if that is all that is left than someone who buys a standard ticket but is assigned an E- seat a booking.

  2. Does BA still do this? I noticed as OWE (AA EP) flying with them to Europe in WT+ longhaul / Euro Traveler within Europe, the seat next to me always showed as “blocked” on EF. Since none of the flights were full, those blocked seats never got filled, and I always had the seat next to me empty. It was quite nice.

  3. I would expect nothing to change. They manage their business poorly, get gov bailout. Wash, rinse and repeat.

    If anything, I could see them further cutting benefits because they’re in “tough times”. Oddly I’m not sure what else they could cut.

    The days of domestic airlines doing anything for the good of the passenger are long gone and short of being forced by the gov with a passengers bill of rights or something similar, they have no reason to want to change.

  4. @ Gary — Here’s a better one — no waiting for your free coronavirus vaccine. Skip the line with your status. Concierge Keys and Global Services to the front of the line. If you are in Group 9, you are screwed.

  5. I bet there will be a new regulation to block middle seats for existing aircraft and future aircraft will need to have more space between pax – wait for it !!

  6. I agree with Adam H.

    If I’m booking close-in and E+ is full because of blocked middle seats, I’m going to be pissed. Unless there is a way to let someone with higher status than you override your blocked seat. So if a Platinum blocks their middle seat I can still see it as a 1K.

  7. People need to stay away from: a) airports, b) TSA agents, c) airplanes themselves.

    To do otherwise endangers yourself and everyone you come into contact with

    That is the clear reality we need to focus upon as our lives are upended

  8. Forget “middle seat blocking”

    A whole lot of people would be MUCH HAPPIER if……

    a) seats weren’t jammed so close together, and
    b) elite benefits were real benefits and tiers weren’t so hard to reach

  9. If the purpose is to bring back passengers, it seems you wouldn’t need the benefit of an empty middle seat unless passengers were already coming back. There are more than enough empty seats on many flights as is.

    Although with so many flight cancellations and frequency reductions, some flights are crowded. On March 12, Cathay Pacific cancelled my flight from BKK to HKG and rebooked me for the following day. Every seat in premium economy on that flight was occupied unlike the very light load on the flight from HKG to BKK 10 days before. Even though the incidence of Covid-19 in Thailand was exceedingly low at that time, being so close to others was a bit scary. It is no fun when passengers regard each other as threats. The feeling on that flight and in domestic first on AA was more tense than after 9/11.

  10. If the purpose is to bring back passengers, it seems you wouldn’t need the benefit of an empty middle seat unless passengers were already coming back. There are more than enough empty seats on many flights as is.

    Although with so many flight cancellations and frequency reductions, some flights are crowded. On March 12, Cathay Pacific cancelled my flight from BKK to HKG and rebooked me for the following day. Every seat in premium economy on that flight was occupied unlike the very light load on the flight from HKG to BKK 10 days before. Even though the incidence of Covid-19 in Thailand was exceedingly low at that time, being so close to others was a bit scary. It is no fun when passengers regard each other as threats. The feeling on that flight and in domestic first on AA was more tense than after 9/11.

  11. Back when I was AAdvantage Gold, that was my favorite perk. Unfortunately I don’t fly enough now for it to matter.

  12. Fat chance – even when there were open seats the past couple weeks, I still saw UA fill open middles E+ first for no-status standbys (when they should have started at regular E first).

  13. As FB Plat, I can say that AF definitely tries to give me a shadow in Y. When traveling with my spouse on separate tickets, I’ve changed seats at check-in to a window on an empty row. Switch to my spouse, and mysteriously the middle seat shows up as occupied. I’ve also had mysterious coincidence ‘only empty middle seat on the flight” happen to me regularly on AF and DL longhaul. KL, not so much (probably because they run E+, which is basically a concession to being the country with the tallest people in the world).

    That said, it doesn’t happen with enough regularity that you could bank on it, let alone advertise it. But I see it happening often enough to appreciate it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.