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Why Covid Isn’t Going to Free Up Middle Seats on Planes

Why Covid Isn’t Going to Free Up Middle Seats on Planes

Sunday, 18 April, 2021 - 04:45

Here’s another reason to thank the medical profession amid the misery of Covid — doctors want you to have more space to spread out when flying.

The risk of catching the virus onboard drops by 57% when middle seats are left unoccupied on planes, according to a study released Wednesday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That validates the decision of most major US carriers at the start of the pandemic to stop selling middle seats. It’s a measure that has since been almost universally abandoned. Delta Air Lines Inc., the last holdout, will go back to filling its cabins to capacity starting May 1.

The reasons aren’t hard to discern. The fixed cost of an individual flight is high. Landing and navigation charges are the same whether a plane has one passenger or 300. Even labor expenses are more or less set in stone, since the number of cabin crew required are largely determined by how many seats an aircraft has, rather than how many of them are filled. Fuel costs, too, don’t vary much, because most of the weight of an airplane at takeoff consists of the aircraft and fuel, rather than passengers and their luggage.

That means one of the most crucial measures of profitability for airlines is their load factor — the share of seats that are occupied. Fill up enough of the cabin and you’ll pay off all the fuel and operating costs for the flight. Every seat you sell after that point is pure profit. The problem is, competition from rival carriers is constantly pushing down the cost of tickets, meaning you need to sell a larger and larger proportion of the cabin to break even.

Looked at that way, it’s easy to see why not selling middle-seat tickets is never going to work. By definition, a plane set up that way is going to top out at a load factor of 67%, because only two out of every three seats can be sold. Numbers like that, though, were last viable over a decade ago, when aviation was far less competitive than it is now.

Over the last two pre-pandemic years, the median carrier needed to fill nine out of 10 seats to have a hope of breaking even on that basis. Indeed, many break-even load factors are above 100% even in normal times. That looks impossible until you consider that most carriers make a decent sum from things other than selling passenger tickets, such as getting travelers to pay for sandwiches, legroom or baggage, running loyalty programs, or carrying commercial air freight.

As we’ve written, things are worse thanks to Covid, and unlikely to improve for a while. Of the 27 airlines in our sample, just eight have had break-even load factors lower than 100% over the past year. That should improve as flight frequencies rise and make it easier for carriers to defray their capital costs, but domestic traffic is still well down on pre-Covid levels almost everywhere. International travel, meanwhile, may not return to normal until the middle of this decade.

The reason that center seats were available on so many carriers for much of the past year wasn’t a sign of how easy it was for them to get by with sub-67% load factors, but evidence of how desperate they’ve been to get people in the air again.

Airlines are facing a wicked problem of how to tempt passengers back on board amid quite reasonable fears of infection, especially at a time when many of us have gotten out of the habit of flying. Cutting fares is a dangerous game because it can lead customers to treat discount prices as normal, when carriers really need to be more profitable than ever to offset the immense debts they’ve run up. Taking off with cabins two-thirds full made sense for a while as a way of buying goodwill and persuading passengers to fly at all, but it was never going to be sustainable.

Those catching the remaining middle-seat-free Delta flights over the next couple of weeks should make the most of it. Planes are going to be more crowded than ever for the foreseeable future.


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