Airlines keeping middle seat open would raise fares: report

The era of affordable travel may come to an end, IATA says

Some major U.S. airlines are keeping middle seats unoccupied to facilitate some social distancing on its planes, however, one report suggests the move may come at a price for passengers.

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With fewer seats to sell, airlines may be forced to ramp up the price of passenger fares in order to break even this year, according to the International Air Transport Association, which has openly opposed mandating social distancing measures that would leave middle seats empty.

“Eliminating the middle seat will raise costs. If that can be offset that with higher fares, the era of affordable travel will come to an end," said Alexandre de Juniac, the association's director general and CEO.

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Slashing plane capacity down to 62 percent, in order to adhere to social distancing measures meant to curb the spread of the virus would "fundamentally shift the economics of aviation," according to the organization which represents hundreds of airlines that account for approximately 82 percent of global air traffic.

In order to break even, the capacity of an aircraft would have to notch upwards of 77 percent, according to the association.

A passenger looks at his phone while waiting aboard a United Airlines plane before taking off from George Bush Intercontinental Airport on May 11, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

For instance, average airfares around the world would need to jump anywhere between 43 percent to 54 percent, depending on the region, this year in order to break even compared to 2019.

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If airlines can't retrieve costs in raising the price of fares, airlines "will go bust" de Juniac said, adding that neither option is preferably amid a time when "the world will need strong connectivity to help kick-start the recovery from COVID-19’s economic devastation."

In North America, the average fare would climb 43 percent, from $202 to $289 compared to last year, according to the association, which cited figures from 2019.

While some airlines continue to limit bookings to create space between passengers in order to minimize the risk of contagion, others have taken a different approach.

Delta says it is capping seats at about 60 percent of capacity and Southwest at about 67 percent both through Sept. 30. JetBlue says it will leave middle seats empty through July 31 unless the person is traveling with a passenger in an adjoining seat.

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By contrast, United, Spirit Airlines and American, however, are arguing that other steps, including stepped-up cleaning procedures and requiring all passengers to wear face coverings, eliminate the need to block some seats.

United CEO Scott Kirby has said social distancing is impossible on planes anyway; that even with empty middle seats, people are less than six feet away from each other.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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