Airlines can still maximise revenue with concept from travel marketing strategist Globalyse, says managing partner John Harvey

No one likes the middle seat at the best of times.

Who wants to be squashed up next to a stranger in the middle seat or, worse still, find that you have been allocated the middle seat, let alone when everyone has been social distancing because of Covid-19?

The importance of personal space should not be underestimated. It could stop many people from travelling and hold back recovery for the global travel industry.

As travel begins to resume, some airlines have said they may leave the middle seat empty to restore customer confidence. This appears short-lived, and offers little guarantee. Ryanair even described the idea of leaving the middle seat empty as “idiotic” because of lack of revenue.

There has been a suggestion that, if customers wanted to guarantee more space, they could buy two seats. However, this is technically complex, operationally difficult to manage, and significantly more expensive than it needs to be.

But there is an answer.

Airlines which operate aircraft with a triple-seat configuration in economy class could offer their customers the option of an empty middle seat by introducing an innovative new airfare we’ve put forward at Globalyse.

The new idea is simple: it shares the cost of an empty middle seat between two people.

This means that for every two passengers who choose to pay a 50% premium on their economy fare, an empty middle seat is fully funded. Airlines could offer what we’d call an ‘Economy EMS Fare’, which provides the customer with a window or aisle seat and guarantees that the middle seat will be empty.

The beauty of the concept is that individuals could book this fare on their own. They do not need to find a partner or buddy-up with anyone. This can all be handled within the fare. Any financial risk to the airline is minimal because they can use a dynamic sales model which scales according to demand.

Imagine it as releasing three seats at a time, starting from the front of the economy cabin, and working backwards. For every two Economy EMS fares sold, the airline is fully funded for all three seats. The maximum risk is only ever one unsold ticket, which only happens if the total EMS fares sold is an odd number. This one unsold seat could then easily be offered as an upsell option at check-in and the revenue from EMS seating is 100% complete.

In practice, airlines may wish to present the offer as an identified section of the cabin and allow customers to view a seat map. The EMS section can shrink or grow depending on demand. A virtual ‘buffer’ of blocked seating between EMS and Economy can be used during the sales cycle to increase or reduce whichever section is generating the most demand.

There is no physical change required within the aircraft and no additional onboard services needed. Some airlines may see an opportunity to offer additional features to the EMS fare, such as priority boarding or additional baggage but, for most people, the space alone will be the key.

There is no claim that this concept is medically any safer or provides protection against Covid-19. However, just knowing from the moment you make a booking that you are guaranteed an empty middle seat would be a great relief for many people. Not only could this initiative help with restarting travel, but as a long-term offer could be an attractive option for many customers – especially business travellers and their companies, who are increasingly concerned about traveller wellbeing and performance.

Who wants to arrive at an important business meeting having set off at dawn, been through two airports and spent a couple of hours squashed up next to strangers with nothing more than a mask on your face? Not me. But I would pay £50 extra on a £100 sector fare to guarantee an empty middle seat. It would make the whole experience less stressful and certainly more comfortable.

The ‘Economy EMS Fare’ would be an innovative way to make this happen.