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Would You Pay for Half a Plane Seat?

Airlines should sell half seats. That idea was floated—seriously—at a recent business travel conference, the Global Business Travel Association in San Diego. The aim, of course, would be to provide travelers with some relief from today’s extremely tight economy-class seating for a lot less than the price of a business or first-class ticket: Passengers would have the option to purchase an additional half seat for an extra fee on top of standard fares.

Some airlines already allow couples to buy all three seats in a typical three-seat unit and leave the middle seat unoccupied. These carriers charge standard fares for that empty seat, so the net premium is 50 percent of the fare for each traveler.

What’s new is the suggestion that airlines sell one-and-a-half-seat tickets individually. (I assume the airlines will pair up those travelers with one-and-a-half spots in the seat allocation process.) The airlines’ costs would be reduced enough that the pare premium might not have to be as high as 50 percent: The empty seat means less weight on the flight, reduced workload for cabin staff, faster boarding and unloading, no costs for snacks or beverages, less crowding of overhead bins, and such. Regardless of the merit, any serious proposal would have to include answers to some questions:

  • How much would that half seat add to the ticket price? Would it be 50 percent, 40 percent, or what?
  • Would the offering be limited to travelers on high business travel fares, with business-class fares charged for the empty seat, or would it also extend to vacationers on cheap tickets?
  • Would there be enough interest to make the system work?
  • Would the half seats be guaranteed even in the event of an oversold flight?
  • Would travelers earn frequent-flyer credit for the empty seats?

Despite all the questions, the proposal is intriguing. Would you purchase half a seat on a plane?

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