New research has revealed that during the COVID-19 pandemic, customers are willing to pay nearly 17% more to fly on a plane with middle seats blocked off — a strategy that some airlines are continuing to promote, while others have gone back to full capacity flights.
In a July survey conducted by Atmosphere Research, a travel industry analytics company, 2,500 participants in the United States were asked how much more they’d be willing to pay for a flight that would block access to its middle seats versus an otherwise identical flight that would not.
The price for the flight with full seating was set at $200 and respondents were given a slider that went from 0% to 35%, and asked how much more they would be willing to pay for the flight with blocked middle seats.
“The average was 16.5%,” Henry H. Harteveldt, the president of Atmosphere Research, told HuffPost.
The survey also revealed that while 75% were concerned with contracting COVID-19 in general, more than 80% said they were specifically afraid of catching the virus on a plane.
When asked about other safety precautions, 84% and 85% said, respectively, that mandatory face mask rules and the constant cleaning of planes were important. More than 80% said that it was “somewhat or extremely important” to have the middle seat open in coach.
Only a handful of U.S. airlines are continuing the social distancing practice of blocking the booking of middle seats on domestic flights and flying planes at less than full capacity, including Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines. Southwest does not assign seats, but offers a “middle seats open” policy that encourages passengers to socially distance as much as possible and only sit together if they choose. The three airlines will have these plans in place until at least the end of September.
In an interview with CNN in July, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said that his airline had seen data similar to Atmosphere Research’s in their own surveys, emphasizing that “the space and the distance on board the planes are really important in terms of people feeling safe and comfortable.”
“I’d rather have more flights back and more seats into the market in a safe way than trying to maximize the number of people you can put on an individual airplane and I think that would be inconsistent with the brand that Delta represents,” Bastian repeated in a company earnings call.
This strategy is in contrast with American Airlines, which dropped seat blocking measures in July and begun booking at full capacity, giving passengers the option to switch crowded flights free of charge. United Airlines has followed a similar strategy, with Josh Earnest, the company’s chief communication officer, dismissing seat blocking as a viable long-term option, calling it a “PR strategy” rather than a “safety strategy.”
“When you’re onboard the aircraft, if you’re sitting in the aisle, and the middle seat is empty, the person across the aisle is within 6 feet from you, the person at the window is within 6 feet of you, the people in the row in front of you are within 6 feet of you, the people in the row behind you are within 6 feet of you,” Earnest told reporters in July, stressing that wearing masks and air filtration were ultimately more important.
Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Robert Redfield of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifically criticized American Airlines’ decision to end these social distancing measures during a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday, with Fauci calling it “something that is of concern,” and Redfield condemning the move as a “substantial disappointment.”