Why Blocking Middle Seats Is The Airline Version Of ‘Building A Wall And Making Mexico Pay For It’

As travel companies look to bring back business in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic the single most important asset they need to leverage is customer trust. Some brands are trying to license trust from others – United is paying to attach Clorox’s name to its cleaning regiment, Hilton is paying Lysol.

At the end of the day though people need to feel confident it’s safe for them to travel, which means both real precautions need to be put in place and customers have to believe that those precautions are actually being taken even when they occur outside of view.

That’s why finding hotels that aren’t even changing the sheets between guests now is so challenging. That has been the case at hotels in the past but the consequences now are much greater.

While United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby derides blocking middle seats as mere marketing he’s actually right but he misses that marketing is one of the two key components of customer trust. The substance has to be there, but customers can only look for clues to see if that’s true. There are visible signs a business is committed to keeping customers safe. A business that will block one third of its seats is putting its money where its mouth is. Whether that kind of distancing matters, it’s a strong signal.

It’s hard to build a brand just-in-time when you need it. In order to do that you need to go overboard to an extreme in order to signal credible commitment. That’s actually how I think about Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential campaign. He was never actually going to build a wall on the border with Mexico and get Mexico to pay for it but he was going to such an extreme to signal commitment, since his base had stopped trusting politicians and political promises. Hence the admonition that the media took him literally but not seriously, while his voters took him seriously but not literally.

Going into a crisis it helps to actually have a brand that fits. A Japanese airport that already wipes down passenger luggage before it arrivals on the conveyer belt is going to have an easy time convincing customers that it takes cleanliness seriously.

Overall it’s hard to imagine a great trust level here in aviation than for Singapore’s Changi airport and for Singapore Airlines.

Singapore’s airport is now promoting that they’ve gone touch-free throughout the travel experience, from check-in to the elevators. Even the toilets are now contactless.

I trust Singapore – its airline and airline – to make these kinds of decisions. In challenging times in the past U.S. airlines have skimped on cleaning. When DFW Airport has renovated its terminals they’ve had to skimp on renovating restrooms because American Airlines wouldn’t pay for it.

When you don’t have cleanliness and trust as a brand, you have to massively overshoot on investment to credibly signal ‘this time is different’.

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 »

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  1. Would you shut up with the mindless politics? This used to be a fun, interesting blog but now you’ve polluted it with your arm chair (dumb) political viewpoints. It’s unreadable.

  2. @Hillary Rotten Clinton – there is no criticism of anyone’s politics here, there’s an analysis of the President’s successful campaign branding in light of frustrations with elites who haven’t delivered on promises, and how it’s a similar situation airlines are facing. Sorry you felt triggered?

  3. While I agree with the social distancing aspect for breath and such not having much of an affect with middle seats taken, how about the whole rubbing elbows/arms/potentially hands with a stranger for up to 7 hours on a CONUS flight? Blocking a middle seat prevents that, and given epidemiologists’ recommendations to not shake hands/high five/etc with a stranger, it makes sense not to have someone sitting next to you with a shared 1.5″-2″ armrest for hours at a time.

  4. @Hillary Rotten Clinton – Obviously it’s not unreadable because you’re still reading it. Or by “unreadable” did you mean “doesn’t agree 100% with my opinion so I don’t want to hear it”?

    In any case, this is Gary’s blog and he can do whatever he wants with it. If you don’t like the content, you’re free to go elsewhere or start your own blog. That’s what’s so great about the Internet!

  5. While your fellow bloggers, especially in the “aspirational lifestyle” space, recycle content in hopes of surviving until the pandemic passes, I appreciate the pivot to a thoughtful examination of issues associated with its effect on travel; both at present and in the future. Casting this analysis as political, I believe, misses its point. The conclusion of the analysis and your observations or recommendations might not be something the reader agrees with, but the thought exercise, especially when conducted by a person with a grounding in the issues, has value. I don’t perceive you as being purposefully provocative, and we don’t always agree, but these posts are of interest to me, and I imagine, others as well.

  6. Trusting an airline isn’t enough to get people on a plane. The big problem for airlines and other travel businesses during this pandemic is the overall situation is more important than individual brands. Discretionary travelers must believe that every part of their journey is safe such as the airport, hotel, restaurants, transportation options, and general conditions at the destination like the availability of attractions and activities. The precautions required for Covid-19 safety don’t make travel much fun. Even if the airplane flight is safe, why shell out the bucks when the rest of the travel experience is risky and not much fun?

  7. @Hillary Rotten Clinton: Are we going for pizza later?

    Bring the pics of missing kids from milk cartons. We may find them.

  8. I fear that blocking the middle seat just allows people to let down their guard. I would rather everyone be uptight about flying and take all the precautions to prevent spread. I think many people would say, there no one next to me so I don’t have to wear a mask all the time or other precautions. The young age groups perception that Covid was not affecting them led to them ignoring precautions which resulted in the current spike.

  9. @Gary – can you please tell us to whom your refer when you use the term “elites”?

  10. I keep hearing this nonsense about middle seat exclusion being all marketing. Duh! It’s fewer people on the plane. Fewer people means less chance of contamination. It’s called math.

  11. Delta is doing the right thing, and you know it.

    This contortion of facts is embarrassing: people drank Clorox when their president’s commitment to eradicate COVID (ha!) told them to, just like they fully believed in the lies coming from Trump about Mexico paying for the wall.

    There’s nobody more elitist than Trump and his gilded palace on top of a golden tower, and no President that has delivered less for the US people and literally killed more Americans than most wars by ignoring an infectious disease for which the US had well prepared plans. Shameful.

  12. I won’t fly because I don’t consider it safe as long as the coronavirus is widespread, but if I absolutely had to fly, I would insist on flying an airline that blocks middle seats. As an earlier poster wrote, it is simple math: fewer people on the plane reduces the risk for everybody on the plane, and greater distance between passengers reduces the risk, however slightly, from nearby passengers. I’m not interested in discussions of HEPA filters and cabin airflows. If the passenger near me is a spreader, HEPA filters and cabin airflow won’t make a difference.

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