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CP-2922 had the same seats I saw at my first flight with BoA. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | João Machado)

Post-COVID-19 Aviation Industry: The Middle Seat

Many civil aviation offices around the world are working on what will be the restart of airline operations and a new beginning in aviation. These efforts are intended to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission, including protection for crew, ground personnel and passengers before, during and after flights, and preventive actions in aircraft and terminals.

It is known that the most common aircraft are those that have 6-seats per row such as the Boeing 737, 757, Airbus A319, A320 and A321. In addition, such types have become more attractive to airlines because of their low capacity that matches the low demand this pandemic has caused.

On the airplane, one of the biggest debates has been over whether middle seats should be empty. That would limit airplanes to two-thirds of their normal capacity, according to the aircraft mentioned, not enough for most airlines to make a profit without increasing fares.

Is it possible for airlines to sustainably fly empty middle seats? Most airlines have described it as unfeasible because it increases costs and claims to have other measures that together reduce the probability of COVID-19 infection significantly: use of masks, health checks for passengers and temperature control systems. But according to the World Health Organization (WHO), social distancing is crucial for preventing infections.

The airlines’ main argument is that the risk of getting an infection on a plane is quite low. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently clarified that even under normal conditions strict safety and disinfection protocols are handled on a daily basis. According to many airlines, the air in aircraft cabins is a mix of fresh air drawn from the outside and air that has passed through extremely efficient filters that remove 99.99% of airborne particles down to the size of microscopic bacteria and viruses. These High-Efficiency-Particulate Arrestors, provide air that satisfies the standards set for hospital operating rooms. This air is renewed every three minutes and is permanently monitored to measure its flow, pressure, temperature and quality.

One of the few airlines that have announced the implementation of this “empty middle seat” was Frontier, which planned to guarantee empty middle seats for $39. The airline, however, quickly backtracked and canceled this deal after backlash from the flying public.

Frontier CEO Barry Biffle said that blocking off all middle seats on a plane – one-third of all seats -would drive up airfare prices 50%, something most airlines can’t afford to do to stay competitive.

Delta Air Lines began blocking off middle seats in April, with no charge to passengers. American Airlines said it will leave 50% of middle seats in the main cabin empty and “will only use those seats when necessary.”  Alaska Airlines and United Airlines will only block the middle seat through May 31.

In Europe, Wizz Air Chief Executive Jozsef Varadi declared to Reuters that it will be blocking a third of the capacity of the airplane by leaving middle seats empty. “A 180-seater would become a 120-seater,” Varadi said.

easyJet has also proposed leaving middle seats empty initially, according to its Chief Executive Johan Lundgren, who expects the seating measure will encourage more people to fly.

“That is something that we will do because I think that is something that the customers would like to see,” Lundgren said. “Then we will work out with the authorities and listen to the customers’ views and points on what they believe is the right thing to do, particularly in the start-up period.”

On the other hand, there are other airlines that are not considering leaving middle seats empty. Copa Airlines CEO Pedro Heilbron announced a few weeks ago that the airline has no plan to leave empty seats on the planes between passengers.

Heilbron stated: “Otherwise, the business will not be sustainable.”

Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary said to the Financial Times that they will not fly with empty middle seats, leaving it with only two-thirds of inventory. “We cannot make money on 66% load factors. Even if we do that, the middle seat does not deliver any social distancing, so it is kind of an idiotic idea that does not achieve anything anyway.”

Will empty middle seats help social distancing on planes? Responsible social distancing in the age of COVID-19 means staying at least 2m (6ft) from other people. But that’s impossible on a modern plane, where seats are around 17-18 inches wide, so leaving the middle seat free only keeps you just over a foot from your neighbor, side to side. The percentage of seats on a plane occupied by passengers determines whether flights break-even and are worth operating for most carriers. At a certain load factor, flights become profitable, and the difference between making a loss or not on a route turns on just a few passengers.

Juan Pedro Sanchez Zamudio
Juan Pedro Sanchez Zamudio
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