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Why airlines in India are against keeping middle seats in flights vacant

Internationally though, the proposal has divided the industry

April 28, 2020 / 02:08 PM IST
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Airlines in India have come together on an issue, that seems to have otherwise divided the industry globally. It's about keeping middle seats in flights vacant, to maintain social distancing among passengers.

EasyJet, the British low-cost airline is fine with it. But the CEO of its Irish peer Ryanair termed the proposal 'idiotic.' In the US, while United Airlines again is receptive of the idea, local peer American Airlines thinks otherwise.

So what is it about the idea, that has evoked such sharp responses?

The 'vacant' seat dilemma 

As airlines and airports prepare to resume operations, once the lockdown is lifted and the government gives the green signal, they have put in elaborate guidelines to ensure the safety of passengers.


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One such rule is to maintain social distancing, at the terminals, buses that ferry passengers and flights. Well, the flight part is a question mark now.

India's industry regulator DGCA has proposed that airlines keep the middle seat empty. But DGCA is not alone. Regulators in Thailand, China and other countries have done the same.

So, why does the Ryanair CEO think the idea is 'idiotic?'

Michael O'Leary, the CEO, said the airline can't afford to keep the middle seats empty. The move, he said, neither ensures social distancing nor is it viable for an airline.

If the Irish government does impose it, O'Leary warned, the airline will not fly, unless the administration pays for the loss.

Interestingly, EasyJet's Chief Executive Johan Lundgren said it will help the airline attract passengers, especially for a short period as flying resumes.

One may agree with the view, especially after going through this nervous account of flying a long haul flight that was full. 

But won't vacating the middle seat help in social distancing?

Those against the idea including Indian carriers such as SpiceJet said keeping the middle seat vacant is not enough to ensure social distancing.

They reasoned the argument by factoring in the width of an average aircraft seat (about 45cm in Airbus 320 aircraft), which is clearly not enough to have a gap of 2 meters. Even if one were to maintain a distance of 1.5 meters - the gap that airports in India have proposed to maintain - it would probably mean that airlines can have only two seats occupied across a row of six seats, including the aisle.

But this hasn't prevented United Airlines to ensure social distancing inside a flight. The airline said customers won't be able to select seats next to each other.

Will airlines make enough money?

It will be difficult, said Shakti Lumba, an aviation veteran and former Executive Director, Airline Operations (Alliance Air), and Vice President, Ops (IndiGo).

"Keeping the middle seat empty would mean that airlines will lose 33.33 percent of their capacity. They would be able to sell, say 120 out of 180 seats on an A320," he said.

One way to make up for the loss, added Lumba, would be to increase the price of the saleable seats.

But how much can prices be raised?

Estimates vary, but industry executives said a Mumbai-Delhi oneway fare would have to be at least Rs 8,000. Currently, a ticket on the route would cost about Rs 2,500.

That will be a tough call for airlines, especially when demand for travel is expected to remain low till the COVID-19 fears remain.

"There will be little business travel, now that video conferencing/ work from home has become popular.  I see only three airlines being viable, i.e Air India, IndiGo and Vistara," said Lumba.

With projections as alarming as that, it is no wonder that airlines in India have not warmed up to the idea of keeping middle seats empty.
Prince Mathews Thomas heads the corporate bureau of Moneycontrol. He has been covering the business world for 16 years, having worked in The Hindu Business Line, Forbes India, Dow Jones Newswires, The Economic Times, Business Standard and The Week. A Chevening scholar, Prince has also authored The Consolidators, a book on second generation entrepreneurs.
first published: Apr 28, 2020 02:08 pm
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