Airlines continue to find more and more ways to build their bottom lines as any business should. While I don’t want to create new problems for myself, this is one airline fee I’d be happy to pay when stuck in coach for an empty middle seat next to me, here’s my proposition.
Empty Middle Seats Are The Best
On a pair of flights this week, I faced one of those last minute boarding situations where you think you might just have an empty middle seat next to you but can’t be sure. On one flight my colleague and I indeed had a row to ourselves. On the last flight, I wasn’t so lucky.
An empty middle seat is more spacious than first class by width, and if you happen to be in an exit row (depending on airline and equipment) you may the same leg room too! In the US, I would usually prefer to sit up front over an empty middle seat but it’s a close call.
When a Flight Goes Out With Unsold Middle Seats
While flights are generally fuller than they ever have been before, sold out flights and oversold flights remain somewhat rare. In fact, anecdotally, I haven’t been on an oversold flight for close to a year.
Middle seats are of course the least desirable for a plethora of reasons so people do not actively choose to sit in them unless they are part of a traveling couple/group/family or that seat provides some sort of advantage (towards the front of the plane or in a more legroom row). If there are five unsold seats on a flight in the US, chances are that they are all in the middle.
When you score an empty middle seat on a flight it’s such an unexpected wonderful gift, one that I would be happy to pay for.
I’ll Pay More For That
I can already hear the groaning from readers who don’t want another fee added to their travel experience, and I can understand that. But before you bust your keyboard commenting about how adding another fee is heresy, allow me to make my case.
Most of the airlines hated ancillary revenue comes from services that used to be included but now cost additional money. In this instance, it’s a case of charging for something that adds value to the customer but has not been offered before. There will be some flights where customers get the middle seat open next to them for free anyway, just as some customers get free upgrades to economy plus seats when basic economy seats are oversold or in the rare case where a customer moves from economy to business due to the same oversold economy cabin and availability in the front of the plane.
If the airline could offer me the middle seat open on a flight where they haven’t sold it out, I’d pay for it. Sitting next to another frequent flyer that I did not previously know, I asked the same question and he agreed taking it a step further:
“I’d pay $20. Not for this flight (CLT-PIT, 50 minutes flying time) but for longer flights, absolutely.” Man in 11C
“That’s a great idea, make it dynamic. I’d pay $10 on this flight, but on a trans-con, I could see it going for $50-100.” – Me
I thought back to my last trans-con, a redeye from LAX-CLT on a completely full A321. Gross. If I could go back and ensure that I owned that middle seat for $100 that night, I would have done it (first class wasn’t even close to reasonably priced for the flight).
It Penalizes “Basic” Economy Flyers Further
Basic economy customers could be ineligible from the program as a way of encouraging them to pay the extra $25-30/each way to move to traditional economy. Fill rows of basic economy passengers first in order to keep the few remaining seats solely available to those who have an economy fare or higher and have an option to purchase the additional space.
Sometimes the disparity between basic economy and economy is a small amount of money, other times it’s an awful lot. If I paid $200 for a flight and another passenger in basic economy paid $50 I’d be annoyed if they got the extra space and I was smashed in a full row.
It’s Good For the Airlines
Seat revenue expires as soon as the door closes and you can never get it back. If a flight is set to depart within an hour, and there are five open seats in the back of the plane, let customers opt in at purchase or checkin to pay something for that seat if it remains open.
In fact, I will go further. My seatmate in 11C and I agreed that the airline could have charged us both for the open seat and we would have both been glad to have paid for it – now the airline is getting twice the fee for the same seat that previously was unsold.
That empty seat (that is now earning revenue) adds zero marginal cost outside of an initial IT load into the system. There is no more weight added to the plane (thus no more fuel), it doesn’t require marginal additional catering, etc.
One potential issue is who owns that seat and extra space. If I pay for an extra seat, I don’t want someone sitting in the same row who didn’t pay for it placing their laptop on it, sliding their backpack under the seat and utilizing the space at my cost. But this should be solved easily. When the empty middle seat sells to an agreeable passenger, they should get two boarding cards, one for travel and one for the seat.
In the event that both travelers have paid for the space, then the airline probably needs to have a plan for shared space situations.
It’s Good For Travelers
The problem travelers have with ancillary fees is that they are getting nothing for something. Seat assignments don’t really add a true value to the customer outside of specialty seats or reducing worry from groups traveling together. In this case, travelers do get something for the money they would provide. If there are not enough free seats to sell an empty middle, then the customer is not out any money. If there is, the customer got something for which they already agreed on a case-by-case basis was worth it to them.
No one ever wants to add cost to their travel experience, but at least two frequent flyers in the world would gladly pay for a vacant seat next to us.
What do you think? Is this a fee you’d pay if it were available? Is there another fee/service you’d rather add instead? Could an airline incentivize their elites by offering “confirmed empty middle” to customers they couldn’t otherwise upgrade?