Could An Empty Additional Seat Become A Common Added Extra?

One of the take-aways from COVID-19 is that the way we travel is going to change. It won’t be just about hand sanitizer and temperature checks in airports. How airlines operate will change, and that will impact passengers. Airlines are having to rethink their business model and sometimes think outside the box.

Could an empty additional seat become a common added extra on airlines? Photo: McCarran International Airport

How to monetize a by-product of COVID-19?

One of the phenomenons of COVID-19 has been social distancing. In aviation, that’s translated into the empty seat next to you. Despite that empty seat usually only being about 60 centimeters across and not wide enough to conform to safe minimum social distancing norms, passengers have loved it.

As airlines start to fill up their planes again, a lot of people are going to miss that empty seat next to them. For revenue starved airlines, this raises an intriguing possibility. Could a COVID-19 inspired travel perk be converted into a saleable product?

There has never been anything to stop you from buying two seats. Some airlines even have processes that facilitate it. But will it become more common? Could purchasing an additional seat become as easy as purchasing an allowance to check-in a second bag?

People already happily pay extra for baggage. Photo: McCarran International Airport

As easy as paying for baggage?

Perhaps the idea outrages you. But let’s face it, you’re probably already paying extra to choose your seat, check-in a bag, board first, eat a sandwich made yesterday, and drink a coffee in-flight. An empty seat is just another additional add-on. It shouldn’t be too big a cultural or psychological leap for most.

Apple Ignacio, Director of Ancillaries at Cebu Pacific, was speaking in a Future Travel Experience webinar earlier this month. She thinks the idea is a viable one.

“We need to stay curious. We may have the same passengers, but they may have different needs. They’re behaving differently now, so we need to understand and quickly adapt to their changed needs and preferences. We need to creatively address those needs and preferences.

“People might pay for a premium to guarantee that the seat next to them is vacant.”

Cebu Pacific is looking at the idea of selling passengers an additional seat. Photo: via Wikimedia Commons

For airlines, the idea is appealing. They get to sell a seat, but they don’t have to carry a passenger. So the airline saves on weight, and it’s one less person who they have to deal with. For airlines, it is a pretty compelling economic proposition.

“My realization during this whole pandemic, and I think it holds true for the majority of the airlines, is that the add-ons [ancillary revenue] are really relying on passenger numbers and passenger volume. So if there’s a big take away from me, it is we need to consider and explore add-ons that wouldn’t make us so dependent on passenger numbers,” says Ms Ignacio.

A small price to pay for a much better flight

For passengers, you are paying a premium for a more comfortable flight. People already do this. People spend thousands of dollars extra to fly business class. Less extravagant folk might pay hundreds of dollars extra for extra legroom, or twenty dollars extra for a blanket, or five dollars extra for a Coke. It’s all an additional extra to the base fare.

These people are all paying extra to make their flight better. If you are sitting on a plane for three hours, maybe buying a bargain basement fifty dollar fare to keep the seat next to you empty isn’t to high price to pay.

While the idea may have its critics, others think it’s a no-brainer. Either way, monetizing the empty seat concept could well be the next big thing in airline ancillary revenue streams. It’ll be another thing you can thank COVID-19 for.