Middle seats and packed planes are coming back to US airlines
Delta CEO Ed Bastian told shareholders at the annual meeting two weeks ago that it could lift that limitation come fall.
“Whether it’s 60% [of seats being sold] or a slightly higher number I don’t know, but yes we absolutely will” keep some limits on the percentage of seats sold in place, he said.
Southwest has thus far not offered any similar assurances past Sept. 30.
It’s not clear whether airlines will lose reluctant passengers by deciding to sell the middle seat said Philip Baggaley, chief airline credit analyst for Standard & Poor’s.
“At the moment, most people don’t want to get on an airplane anyway,” he said. “Those that do have made a determination that they have to fly, or feel safe flying. Not sure how large the group is that would be dissuaded by a full plane.”
“But if the recovery in flying continues, there is a greater risk that you are scaring away a more material number of passengers by selling middle seats,” he added.
Airlines elsewhere in the world have not put policies in place that have left seats empty, said John Grant, aviation analyst with tracking service OAG. He said the only broad limit is a rule put in place by Chinese authorities that international flights to and from that country can sell no more than 75% of its seats.
The problem for the airlines is that during normal times they need to sell somewhere between 60% and 73% of seats just to break even, Grant said, depending on their cost structure. US and European airlines typically have the higher break-even point.
Grant says that given seat widths, leaving the middle seat open leaves less than two feet between passengers, not enough for those who want to stay six feet away.
“Keeping the seat open might reassure some passengers, but there is no scientific evidence that you elevate the chance of infection by a factor of Y% by using the middle seat,” he said. “I think there’s less chance of scaring people away because you sell the middle seats than if you charge 30% more to keep the seat empty.”
But others say the airlines do risk scaring away customers who were on the fence about flying.
“People didn’t like middle seats before and they like them even less now,” said Stephen Beck, managing partner of cg42, a management consultant who has advised airlines. “While this will allow them to fill a few more flights to capacity, but will the inevitable negative PR be worth filling those seats? I would question that.”
— CNN’s Gregory Wallace contributed to this report