COVID-19 and the absurd airplane middle seat debate

COVID-19 and the absurd airplane middle seat debate
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The “new normal” when it comes to airlines not selling middle seats is apparently over.

Travelers are shocked to see airlines selling middle seats at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is still raging. Some passengers were no doubt convinced that airlines would refrain from selling middle seats on planes for many months, perhaps even until a vaccine was developed. But when it comes to airline revenue, the one thing airlines have taught us over the years is that revenue always comes first, and customer service, and, in this case, passenger safety is a distant second.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused many airlines to park the majority of their fleet. With fewer planes flying, it is easy to understand how the average number of passengers per plane continues to increase. Air travel is down an estimated 74 percent from this time last year, but airlines are seeing an increase in summer traffic, and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) numbers from June show nearly 623,624 passengers being screened on a daily basis. Compared to the 87,354 screened on April 14, 2020, we have come a long way. But comparing historical averages – a normal summer travel day consists of 2.6 million travelers a day – it becomes quite clear that we have a long way to go.

Airlines around the world are on pace to lose $85 billion in 2020, and as airlines see an increase in traffic, they desperately want to cram as many passengers onto their silver revenue tubes as they can. American Airlines recently informed their frequent fliers that several flights after July 1 could be filled to capacity. United Airlines has also informed passengers that their flights may be full, although their promise is to contact passengers on flights that are more than 70 percent full to advise them in advance. This will allow concerned passengers to switch to a departure with fewer passengers aboard.

Delta Air Lines and Southwest have promised to only allow 70 percent of their flights to fill up as a way to help maintain fewer passengers in the cabin area. But if passenger numbers start to rise rapidly, this policy may be amended.

The American Airlines pilot union rolled out a plan recently in which it wanted U.S. taxpayers to pay for middle seats, in order to help maintain “social distancing.” If the government bought every middle seat on every plane, airlines could receive needed revenue and passengers would benefit from an aircraft with fewer passengers. The problem with their proposal was the price tag of $2 to $4 billion a month.

Airlines are hoping that forcing passengers to review and sign off on health certificates prior to travel, compulsory mask policies and temperature checks will help passengers feel safer when they fly. This way if a few more passengers are added to the cabin, fewer passengers would complain. So far that assumption is not working out as pictures going viral make it clear today’s flyers are none too happy about sitting for hours directly next to a complete stranger who may or may not be infected.


Ultimately, the middle seat debate is absurd, because we can never achieve social distancing on a commercial aircraft. If we are going to define social distancing as six-feet of separation, then passengers seated in the same row in the aisle and window seat do not qualify, and those passengers on opposing aisles are much closer than the desired distance.

The only way to ensure proper social distancing on an airplane is to place only two passengers per row on every other row. This would allow the required six feet of separation, but it would also mean that a 737 that holds 155 passengers could accommodate only 39 paying customers. With the tens of millions of dollars that airlines are losing on a daily basis, this model will never be used.

As such, empty middle seats will soon become a thing of the past as airlines sell as many revenue seats as possible. Only decreasing passenger demand will dictate a change in the airline industry. Absent that, get ready to be crammed once again into those incredibly small airline seats.                                                      

Jay Ratliff spent over 20 years in management with Northwest/Republic Airlines, including as aviation general manager. He is an IHeart aviation analyst.