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.


I fly on business quite a bit, and my airline of choice is American. Here's some tips on the middle seat, which I get virtually every time for free.

1) Look at the seating several times before you fly. If you booked way ahead, the flight will fill up over time, so you have to keep looking.
2) If possible, pick an aisle seat in a 3 person row, that has the other aisle seat already filled. This means that the middle seat is empty, and if the flight isn't full, it will stay that way. (Don't try for the empty seat in a two seat config... people like windows and aisles, so these will always go before middle seats in a 3 person row)
3) Middle seats generally fill up from the front to the back, so if you really want that middle seat, find a row as far back as possible when you do Step 2. The price here is that the back is less comfortable in general - closer to bathrooms, and noisier in general. Also, you'll be last off the plane, so connections are an issue. But if you checked bags, you're golden... you're either at your final destination, in which case it doesn't matter when you get off, or you're connecting, and the connecting plane won't leave without you if your bag makes it.
4) When you check in, see an attendant. This isn't easy if you aren't elite, as you wait in a long line. For me, as just Gold on American, you can check in at the Business/First counters - no lines and you can talk to a person.
5) Be very nice and ask nicely if the flight looks full. Tell them you'd like them to "block" the middle seat if possible. If the flight is full, they won't/can't do it. But if it is somewhere less than that, they will block it for you and as long as the flight doesn't get filled up, the seat will be empty. Blocked seats are the last to be filled, so even if the flight starts to fill up, yours will be one of the last to go.
6) If the flight is full, or nearly full, blocked seats are not really possible. There isn't much you can do at that point. However, given my size, any empty seat on the plane somehow magically ends up next to me. I've had people move to another empty seat with "narrower" passengers. The rub is when the plane is really full, which means that both me, and the poor guy next to me are uncomfortable. Let me say for all the fat people out there that we're sorry. When this happens to me, I make every effort to stay in my space. I give up the armrest, I lean into the aisle. I keep my legs in front of me to the point that they cramp up... We get that you're uncomfortable, and that it's our fault.

As for the plan Brad put forth, there are additional constraints that you'd have to consider. Suppose, under one scenario, I purchased half the seat, and the other aisle customer purchased theirs? Well the seat is paid for and it's now ours. But the airline may really need that seat for another customer if the plane later becomes "full" Can they "bump" our fictional passenger in the middle seat? If they can't what happens to the person who can't now get on the plane? Does the airline have to compensate them for the missed connection? Do the overbooking rules apply there?

Actually I can answer that at least for Southwest. They are one of the airlines that enforces the "2 seats for the fat guy" rule. My family went to Vegas and my sister bought the extra seats so we wouldn't have a problem. The flight was full and the flight attendants started to put someone in the seat. We informed them we had purchased that seat. The flight attendants said "Ohhhhh...." and didn't know quite what to do. We were firm that we'd paid for the seats, and they were ours. The people who were going to be placed in those seats were walked back off the plane. Angry, they were! That is the unintended consequence of the Southwest policy. But they did the right thing from our perspective. Now, if they had a system where I could sell that seat back to them for the right to only have to purchase one seat in the future, now that would be useful!

I had meant to write on some of these issues so I added some more notes to the main post. You may be interested to know that in Canada, the courts ruled that airlines can't force people to buy two seats if they are fat. They must handle them for a single fare. This only applies to domestic flights though, and besides, they can't legally carry you between two U.S. destinations due to Cabotage rules.

The airlines do a lot of stuff like that, behind the curtain. They use sophisticated models called Revenue Management Systems (also known as Yield Management) and vary their prices very frequently. Some of these models know about seating preferences and already put that into their pricing. The models take into account current demand, historical demand, availability, time until date of flight, and who knows what else. It can produce surprising results - you may buy a seat on the day of a flight for $50 and find yourself sitting next to someone who booked weeks before for $500 - and vice versa. The model knows it is better the sell the seat at a very low price than let it go empty, and it is better to ask a whole lot for a seat if the odds are high it will be sold.

As a consumer, you can only see this operate if you keep pricing the same flight many times, looking at seat availability. Also, depending on who you are (frequent flier status, for example) and how you are booking, you will see different things.

Hotel chains (where I have worked on reservation systems software for decades) do the same sort of thing, except it is by room type and rate plan rather than seat preference.

As Dave Barry used to write, there is a federal law requiring that no two people on the same flight not traveling together paid the same price for their seat.

And as I noted, the airlines often do this for their elite fliers, though they don't guarantee an empty middle, they just fill that seat last. (Which is pretty good, but these days is failing to help fairly often as they are filling their flights better by having cut back on the total number of them. There used to be 6 daily nonstops from the Bay Area to Toronto, now there are 3.)

But when it comes to seating, they do let you pick your seat on the computer, and in theory did before, but it was harder to convey things. And they had the power to block seats for customers they liked etc. But considering that there are both wide people who are forced to pay full bore for two seats, and less wide people who would pay more for increased room, I think there would be a market for buying a guaranteed empty seat for some surcharge as described above.

Indeed, while it's much harder to coordinate, if there are a lot of people in the "must buy two seats" category, I could imagine a web site to coordinate activities to share empty seats would be a worthwhile project. (One of the passengers would have to pay full price for an official "extra seat" and the other compensate them for half of it, and it would have to be done while there are still free whole rows, which to some extent defeats the purpose as you only need it when there are not free rows going begging.)

I missed the full import of your idea. I do think there would be a market for this.

Getting their reservation systems to understand it might be REALLY HARD. Those systems are ancient (most run on IBM TPF/ACP, an operating system predating OS/360), have much of their code in assembly languages, and have no database or even conventional file system (well, they might by now for part of it)! It's been a long time since I worked on one of these (generic application name is PARS), abut it was a pretty hard environment to write good code, much less to change existing functionality.

In fact, for decades, your confirmation number on your ticket was literally the hexadecimal disk address of where your Passenger Name Record (PNR) existed. Not a file name or database key, but literally the address in a linear address space spanning buildings full of disk drives.

The hex address? That's just amazing. And incredibly insecure, too. So you could be right. It could be hard for them to implement.

It's easy enough to get it started. When a pax buys this, the rule is probably they can't pick their exact seat, though it will be assured it is not a bulkhead (tray table in arm) exit (if tray table in arm) or back row.

Block out the entire triplet when they buy this, and put them in aisle or window. When another pax requests it, give them the opposite seat.

If, as is common, no whole rows are available, check to see if there are rows with 1 pax where the passenger did not explicitly request their seat and it was just assigned by the system. Move that pax to create empty row. If there are no such rows left the product can't be sold on that flight, unless the airline wants to take the chance that it should sell it anyway (into a row with just one ordinary person) to pick up the extra revenue by blocking the middle, hoping that the flight won't fill up completely (in which case it has given up half the revenue on that seat.) If it doesn't fill up it's still found revenue.

If it got very popular the airline could start encouraging pax to be movable. Ie. discount coach passengers only get to confirm window or aisle, but now row, unless booking a group of seats. Pax are fairly flexible, at least non-frequent travelers. For example, airlines routinely put couples into adjacent seats (Aisle, Middle) to leave the window open for them to sell, but I have generally been able to change that to Aisle, Window with vacant and hard to sell middle, when booking 2 tickets, and I presume most seasoned fliers do the same.

This is being offered here in New Zealand.

Air New Zealand is now offering its Pacific Economy passengers subject to availability, the chance to buy at check-in, a guaranteed extra seat. They call this Twin Seat.

My only affiliation to Air New Zealand is that I am a frequent flyer.

Since this is something you can only buy at the gate, and thus only when there are empty seats on the plane, this is actually just a revenue generator for the airline. They are saying, "for extra cash, we'll make sure one of the empty seats is next to you." And it's a fairly low amount of extra cash, so I expect it will be quite popular -- I would certainly buy it if I weren't already sure of such a position.

I have not flown ANZ but normally you can pick your seats on a seat map on the web these days, and on a non-full flight, if you take a seat in a row of 3 with people in Aisle and Window and the middle empty, it's extremely unlikely that you would get somebody in that middle -- though with this twin seat program, it could very well be that if it were popular, other people would snap up all the empties and somebody would be seated next to you if you didn't. Of course, just one of the two people in the X-X configuration needs to buy this product and they both get the empty middle.

What I was proposing was something different, something you could buy well in advance, and at a much higher price. Sort of like a step towards business class. In my plan, the airline would, sometimes be giving up a revenue seat. Other times it would be getting money for something that would have gone empty anyway. With careful balance, the price would reflect something in the middle. ANZ's plan is only to sell seats that are going to be empty anyway.

Some airlines already do this in a way. On United Airlines, as a "Premier" (status) passenger, not only do I get their premium economy, but in theory I get an empty middle next to me if the plane is not close to full. Now these days they are getting too good at filling the planes so it doesn't work as often as you would like. In a somewhat unintended result, the very last passengers to be seated on a full plane will get middle seats in the premium section because of this. In addition, they often get aisles or windows, because it is common for couples to take aisle+window, but when somebody is stuck in the middle, to move them to sit together.

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