“Customers have the option to create a ticket that meets their needs and their budget. If you are getting a bad haircut you don’t just sit there and let it happen, you speak up and say what you want. Ancillaries have allowed airlines to have these conversations with their customers. If spending less time in lines, having more legroom, taking more bags are important to you, they should be available for purchase,” writes Kambr Advisory Group’s Nicole Roedig.
Was it your lucky day? Did you get a neighbor-free seat? More people than ever were flying, and the chance of scoring an extra seat were slim. The only thing worse than having a neighbor in the middle seat was being the person stuck in the middle. Airline seats are narrow, and some customers may simply need additional space to comfortably sit for a few hours.
Air New Zealand, Etihad and Scoot are a few airlines that have successfully turned an extra seat into a new product. Most airlines offer customers the option to purchase an extra seat for the price of an additional ticket. This is primarily used by customers of size needing extra space, but there are no limitations on who can purchase a second seat for themselves. Given the disdain for the middle seat, it is surprising these offers have not been more widely adopted.
Once A Prize, Now A Safety Feature
Over the past few months, the world changed and, suddenly, seemingly every traveler is able to get an empty middle seat for free (or at least expects it). The Covid-19 pandemic has changed how the world views spacing onboard the aircraft.
Once viewed as a prize, a neighbor-free seat is now considered a safety feature. Airlines around the world are pledging to block middle seats so customers feel safe to travel. As demand begins to trickle back, there are continued reports of customers occupying the middle seat.
Unfortunately, you may not find out you have a neighbor until it’s too late.
No Middle Ground: Frontier And JetBlue
We have seen two opposite strategies to guarantee empty middle seats. Frontier launched a product that allowed customers to pay between $39-$89 for a guaranteed empty middle seat.
This is the same product already commonly available around the world. But Frontier saw significant backslash from the public and political figures. Many viewed the empty middle seat product as Frontier putting a price tag on safety. Two days after the announcement the new product was cancelled.
JetBlue took the opposite strategy. For no additional charge, they are guaranteeing customers traveling through July 6th will not sit next to a stranger. JetBlue’s guarantee will surely drive popularity with the brand.
However, it does not take an economics degree to theorize an increase in demand on JetBlue will lead to higher ticket prices. One could argue that increasing ticket prices due to the “no neighbor guarantee” ultimately provides the same result as offering customers the option to buy an extra seat.
At some point demand will return and it will be difficult for airlines to follow social distancing guidelines and price affordable tickets.
The involvement of politicians with regard to Frontier’s empty middle seat program begs the question: will there be new regulations for spacing requirements onboard the aircraft? Ultimately, reduced capacity could lead to higher ticket prices and make air travel unaffordable for some.
It is the airline’s responsibility to make their customers feel safe. Airlines are doing what they can with enhanced deep cleaning procedures, temperature checks and requiring passengers and crew to wear masks.
Personalization Pays – And Costs
Beyond that, customers need the ability to tailor their trip based on their own needs.
JetBlue’s guarantee is great for their customers. But what about customers that feel an additional 18 inches of space is not enough? Each person will have a different definition of personal space and airlines will struggle to find a long-term compromise between social distancing onboard and sustaining low fares.
Frontier’s paid version of the empty middle seat may have been announced at a bad time, but it is still a good product. Airlines that allow customers to purchase empty seats are empowering their customers to take control of their trip. It highlights just how ancillary products have changed the industry.
Customers have the option to create a product that meets their needs and their budget. If you are getting a bad haircut you don’t just sit there and let it happen, you speak up and say what you want. Ancillaries have allowed airlines to have these conversations with their customers. If spending less time in lines, having more legroom, taking more bags are important to you, they should be available for purchase.
Why not expand empty neighbor seat products and allow customers to purchase an entire row if they feel it is necessary? As an industry we need to give consumers the ability to take control of their experience. The unbundled ticket allows customers to buy what is important to them and ensure they have what they need to enjoy the journey.
About Our Guest Author, Nicole Roedig:
Nicole Roedig is a Fort Lauderdale-based consultant to the commercial airline industry. She has spent her career focusing on improving airline ancillary revenue. Nicole currently serves as Sr. Advisory of Ancillaries for Kambr, Inc., a firm devoted to economic strategies in air transportation.