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Flyers Will Pay How Much for Empty Middle Seats?

Flyers Will Pay How Much for Empty Middle Seats?
Joe Cortez

To keep middle seats open, flyers say they would pay up to a 17 percent premium on their airfare. The new research comes as airlines are split as to whether or not to book flights to capacity, or continue to block middle seats for the indefinite future.

A survey revealed flyers are willing to pay 17 percent more for airfare, if they know they keep the middle seat empty on their next flight to encourage social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. As first reported by Business Insider, a survey from travel industry consulting firm Atmosphere Research discovered that flyers are willing to pay more for their flights.

Passenger Premiums for Empty Middle Seats Reflected in Airfare Pricing

The airlines are split on how to approach the middle seat as the novel Coronavirus outbreak continues to hurt their bottom line. American Airlines and United Airlines have committed to book flights “to capacity,” meaning the middle seat is open for business. On the contrary, Delta Air Lines is continuing to keep middle seats open. But is it a winning strategy with passengers?

According to Atmosphere Research, flyers may already be paying a little more to keep middle seats open and continue social distancing. Using numbers to measure passenger revenue per available seat-mile (PRASM), the consulting company found Delta’s PRASM was 6.4 cents in the second quarter of 2020, just over one cent lower than United’s PRASM. But when you adjust for the unused capacity, the company says that Delta has the potential to earn more than its legacy competition.

“If you adjusted Delta’s PRASM for the 40 percent hit it took by blocking seats, Delta is earning a substantial premium over United,” Henry Harteveldt of Atmosphere Research told Business Insider. “Overall, it looks like Delta may be on to something.”

While Delta says they are not charging a premium, Atmosphere says the Atlanta-based carrier has always been a little more expensive in comparison to their competition. However, the COVID-19 pandemic gives the carrier another competition factor. By sacrificing the PRASM from the middle seat, Delta could actually get ahead of the other legacy carriers and earn more business.

“The conversation has shifted,” Harteveldt told Business Insider. “It’s not that on-time performance doesn’t matter, but consumers value physical distancing right now more than they do on-time performance.”

More Airlines Continue to Keep Middle Seats Empty Through October

While Delta has been a leader in the COVID-19 safety initiatives by mandating face mask usage aboard flights and their “Clearance-to-Fly” protocol, they are not the only ones practicing social distancing aboard aircraft. Both Alaska Airlines and JetBlue are committing to keep middle seats empty through October, as part of their novel Coronavirus plans. During the Southwest second quarter earning call, the airline was the first to note they will keep middle seats open through October.

Meanwhile, an informal study by an MIT professor suggests that keeping middle seats open may be the way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 aboard flights. According to an informal study, the professor suggests that flyer’s odds of catching the novel Coronavirus aboard a flight could be as low as 1-in-7,700 when the middle seat is open.

View Comments (22)


  1. OZFLYER86

    August 5, 2020 at 5:41 pm

    the whole empty middle seat concept is just plain stupid.

    If someone sneezes anywhere, droplets can travel up to 6 metres.

    As Qantas CEO stated recently, to observe the silly social distancing rules in Australia, Qantas could only sell 22 seats on a 180 seat aircraft.


  2. sdsearch

    August 5, 2020 at 8:50 pm

    Yes, OZFLYER86, but it travels up to 6 meters mostly in the direction that they sneezed, and only if they didn’t have their mask on when they sneezed. So as long as they aren’t facing you when the sneeze with their mask off, it’s not likely much of it will go in your direction. But with someone in the very seat, it’s more likely. And that’s why the desire to have an empty seat between you and the next stranger.

    Of course, you may be able to maximize your own safety even more by wearing a CE-approved KN95 mask (which protects you from others’ droplets to a great degree, while a cloth masks mostly protects others from you and only protects you from others to a much smaller degree than a KN95 mask) onboard as well as through the whole airport/etc experience.

  3. Marathon Man

    August 6, 2020 at 4:07 am

    How about like just take out the middle seats?

  4. cashmccall

    August 6, 2020 at 4:15 am

    although stupid to some morons, I’ll be flying Delta. Covid or no Covid, coach was too crowded anyway…..thus, why every walmart customer and oz flyer could plan their wally world vacations on the cheap.

  5. Kensterfly

    August 6, 2020 at 5:33 am

    Mandatory masks significantly reduce the spread of sneezed droplets. Combined with empty middle seats, it’s a pretty good solution. Nothing is foolproof but it’s a heck of a lot better than filling the empty seats and not wearing masks.
    Of course, one could always stay home. Or drive.

  6. flyboy_88

    August 6, 2020 at 5:42 am

    With a mask, that is reduced to inches.

  7. Guder

    August 6, 2020 at 5:43 am

    While I appreciate the passion shown by your capitalization, sneezed droplets will travel about 0.6 mm assuming the passenger is wearing the required mask.

    Passengers on an aircraft constantly touching shared spaces with no empty seats: 100%

    Passengers within 6′ of a sneeze on a regional flight: 5%? (I feel that’s generous)

    Passengers exposed to a sneeze when basic mask protocol is followed: 0%


  8. elizadoo

    August 6, 2020 at 5:46 am

    At times it can be cheaper to fly J or F class when taking into account baggage fees in E, vs. the 2 free bags in J/F.

  9. cmd320

    August 6, 2020 at 7:15 am

    So basically nowhere near enough to continue justifying it.

    I’m not complaining, with middles blocked and no measurable service or comfort difference between Y+ and F on many domestic aircraft I’ve been able to shed my costs of buying F significantly.

  10. Hawkeyefan

    August 6, 2020 at 7:43 am

    Either your scared to fly or your not.

  11. azmojo

    August 6, 2020 at 8:00 am

    If the masks work, why does this matter? Is this an admission that the masks don’t work?

  12. BOBAD

    August 6, 2020 at 8:06 am

    Keeping middle seats open is an excellent idea and should be encouraged.

    Delta should be congratulated for it’s policy as should any attempt to increase social distancing and the wearing of facemasks.

    Of course, there will always be a tiny minority of ignorant heads-in-the sand types who no doubt would prefer to spread the virus through their ignorance.

  13. Fornebufox

    August 6, 2020 at 8:09 am

    The droplet issue is supposedly addressed, albeit imperfectly, by a mask requirement. Maybe flyers just prefer an empty middle seat, pandemic or no.

  14. relangford

    August 6, 2020 at 9:51 am

    The mask usage is an effective way of preventing an infected person from infecting others. But, with empty middle seats, I guess I’ll be separated from my wife (as we always travel together). Is there a provision that two married people can sit next to each other and leave the aisle or window seat open (assuming 3 abreast seats)? This is important to us on long-haul flights.

  15. nycityny

    August 6, 2020 at 10:16 am

    Empty middle seat = fewer passengers on board possibly infected with Covid. That alone reduces the risk, regardless of the mask/distance equation.

  16. SoydeSD

    August 6, 2020 at 10:28 am

    On a recent flight on AeroMexico, I paid extra for the window seat in the emergency aisle. My initial thinking was that the window seat offered less exposure than the middle or aisle seats and that there was more space between the rows in front of me and behind me. Also, the seats in row directly ahead of me do not recline.

    Cost me almost as much as the flight for the upgrade, but fortunately no one else ponied up the money to buy the middle or aisle seats. After the flight took off, I moved to the middle seat hoping to discourage another passenger from moving into my row for the extra legroom. I was lucky. It worked on both legs of the flight.

  17. LondonFlight

    August 6, 2020 at 10:38 am

    With or without Covid-19, people should have always covered their faces and noses as a matter of hygiene and politeness.
    And who on Earth wants to be squeezed next to strangers if there is an option to have the extra space provided by an empty middle seat?
    Unless I can afford to buy the space one would expect in premium classes or have the miles to upgrade, having a guaranteed empty seat next to me in economy or even in premium economy sounds like a Godsend.

  18. BC Shelby

    August 6, 2020 at 11:49 am

    @ sdsearch …thank you that was pretty much the same reply I would have posted.

  19. polinka

    August 6, 2020 at 12:43 pm

    Qantas could only sell 22 seats on a 180 seat aircraft.

    I’m a little slow. Can someone explain that to me?

  20. flyingtall

    August 7, 2020 at 8:30 pm

    I just love the way people with obvious minimal understanding of physics and statistics/probability, never mind epidemiology, just blather without data about what THEY think is obvious. Data at this point in a disease outbreak are unlikely to be perfect but real data are available and provide plenty of evidence that reduced potential contact with infected droplets is proportional to decreased risk. However, I’d be OK with anti-maskers patronizing services that ignore data while the rest of us preferentially choose services that adhere to the data available. The relative deaths will give us even better data and I have no doubt about the outcome.

  21. The_Bouncer

    August 8, 2020 at 1:04 am

    17% extra for 50% extra space? Nope. That ain’t gonna fly.

  22. mhrb

    August 12, 2020 at 5:34 pm

    Flyingtall, expecting basic statistical understanding is way too much to ask for these people.

    Relangford, presumably you’ll you’re not so needy it’s impossible to survive a few hours being a couple of feet away from each other.

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