Airlines should sell an empty middle seat for half price
Coach is cramped, but not everybody can afford business class. In addition, there are airlines that require fat people to purchase a second seat if they can't fit into one. Fortunately I am not in that department, but it seems there is an interesting alternative that might make sense for all -- selling half of a middle seat, for half price (or less) to somebody wanting more room in coach.
The idea, of course, is that two passengers want this extra room. So if sold at half-price, the airline effectively is selling that seat for full price. In fact, since they don't have to provide any services for that missing passenger -- nor carry the weight and luggage or offer miles -- they could and should sell the guaranteed empty middle for less than half, perhaps as low as 1/3rd.
On the other hand, half the time there would be an odd number of passengers buying half a middle, which would cost the airline half a fare on half the flights. They might need to bump the cost slightly to account for this.
Of course, ideally these would be rows where the armrest is able to go up fully so it doesn't stick into you even if you recline, though not all airlines do that.
Now there is a bit of gamesmanship to be played on flights that vary widely in load. After all, if a flight is not that loaded, the middle seats will be vacant anyway, and no revenue would be lost by offering the guaranteed empty seat. I can see two strategies for selling in these conditions:
- The passenger pays full-bore (say 40% extra) for the seat. However, if the flight is light enough that many middles are empty, they pay nothing. The passenger always gets value for money and never feels they paid for what others got free.
- The passenger pays a lower fraction, based on how often it's truly needed. Say it's needed only half the time. Pay 20% extra, and always get the empty middle, but no refund even on an empty plane. (Perhaps give "whole row" preference on really empty flights.)
Which would you prefer? Of course if you feel comfy in a full coach cabin, you would not desire either.
Passengers of course would be strategic, and look at the seat map to see how loaded the plane is, and buy the premium only if the flight is filling up. The airline may or may not wish to allow upgrading an existing ticket because of this.
This is also something that could be offered for miles instead of cash.
As you may know, many airlines already do this for their elite passengers, only filling the middle between two elites if the flight is completely full. Promotion to premium legroom sections (which United offers for cash) could be combined with this. A seat in United's Economy Plus with an empty seat next to you gets much closer to Business Class in terms of space, though it still lacks other comforts.
Update: The question came up of full fights with sold empty middle seats. If a passenger has bought this because he can't fit in a single seat, there are few options, unless the passenger they want to add is very small, like a child. However, if the passenger bought the seat simply for extra comfort, but still can fit, they could sell it back to the airline for whatever can be agreed on. The airline could offer cash, business class upgrades, or free half-seat upgrades on future flights, and many passengers might take it. After all, anybody who purchased such a half-seat is the sort who would find a business class upgrade valuable. This might be arranged in advance. For example, the fare rules might say, "The airline, at its discretion, can fill the empty middle seat with a passenger of below average size in exchange for compensation X." A ticket where the seat can't be filled, no way, no how, could cost more, but still a lot less than the option they offer today of purchasing an entire seat.
When I fly with my companion, of course, we usually book aisle and window with empty middle between us. If they seat somebody there, we let them have the window. There are tricks to try to otherwise get that empty middle.
Like premium economy, airlines could make money from selling these guaranteed middle seats to business travelers whose companies have a rule that they won't pay for business class, but will pay for improved economy seating.
Some other options might include a focus on putting somebody as small as possible in the seat, such as an unaccompanied minor.
Some of this also touches on a different problem I will address in a future blog post. Airlines should, if they can, avoid seating two large people in the same pair or trio of seats. While I am sure I'll get claims of "the fatties deserve this for not curbing their appetites" it's a hard problem to solve, since everybody, thin or wide, would want to get tagged as wide to avoid having a crowded row. More on this later.