Airlines including United, Delta, EasyJet and others have announced plans to do away with the middle seat in their economy class cabins during the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest move in the aviation industry’s attempts to deal with the coronavirus, which has walloped this industry harder than perhaps any other.

United Airlines announced on Wednesday that it has started limiting seat selection for adjacent seats in all of its cabins, “including middle seats where available and alternating window and aisle seats when seats are in pairs.”

“We began automatically assigning certain seats on board our aircraft to accommodate social distancing guidelines and maintain the safety of the in-flight experience,” the airline told CBC News in an emailed statement.

In addition to getting rid of middle seats, the airline says it has started to board passengers in smaller groups at a time, in order to discourage them from clustering together, and has also started to upgrade more passengers into business and first class seats in order to keep minimum distances.

The airline says the practice will be in effect until the end of May. It comes on the heels of Delta announcing an outright halt on booking middle seats on its flights, which the airline says will be in effect until at least the end of June.

Huge drop in flying worldwide 

While sure to be welcomed by economy class passengers who have spent years being squeezed into smaller and smaller spaces, the promise to no longer get stuck in a middle seat is largely symbolic, as the number of flights around the world has plummeted by 70 per cent since the start of the crisis, says the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

The flights that are still operating are far less full than they would normally be, which means anyone buying a ticket today is unlikely to have to sit cheek-by-jowl with other passengers. But the million-dollar question is, how long will it last?

The industry as a whole is clearly looking ahead to the future of air travel once the crisis passes. Italian design firm Avio Interiors has been designing aircraft cabins for more than four decades, and the company recently came up with some concepts for how seating may be arranged on planes to keep passengers separate.

One of the concepts by Avio would see the middle row inverted, to maximize distance between passengers. (Avio Designs)

In one version, the middle seat is inverted to face the row behind and create a physical barrier between the passengers on either side. In another, every seat would have a Plexiglas partition beside it in order to limit the spread of droplets.

Both designs ensure that “each passenger has [their] own space isolated from others, even from people who walk through the aisle,” the company said.

Not all airlines on-board

The industry is clearly thinking outside the box to come up with a solution to flying in a future where hygiene is even more paramount. But not all airlines are entertaining the notion that it’s feasible to get rid of middle seats.

Irish discount airline RyanAir is able to offer rock-bottom prices precisely because they cram in as many passengers as possible, and CEO Michael O’Leary said the idea of keeping middle seats permanently empty is “nonsense.”

“We’re in dialogue with regulators who are sitting in their bedrooms inventing restrictions such as taking out the middle seats, which is just nonsense,” O’Leary said. “It would have no beneficial effect whatsoever.”

Economy passengers are used to being crammed into uncomfortable seats, so the idea of having nobody sitting in the middle is an appealing one. (Edgar Su/Reuters)

Passengers come into contact with each other at numerous stages of the travel process, from security checkpoints to the checking-in process, O’Leary noted, so getting rid of middle seats would be effectively pointless, and come at a cost of bankrupting airlines by forcing them to permanent fly planes that are only two-thirds full.

“Most of them were losing money even when you sell the middle seat,” he said.

Other health measures being weighed

British discount airline EasyJet said it was planning to implement measures such as disinfecting aircraft and/or leaving middle seats empty to ensure social distancing on planes.

But IATA head Alexandre de Juniac said it was not a sustainable solution unless companies increase their prices to the point where air travel would be impossible for most people, and make air travel once again a pursuit solely for the world’s richest people.

“If you neutralize … one-third of the seats, it means that you will have to increase your fares by 50 per cent at least,” he said. 

“So, in terms of what travel represents in our societies, it means that cheap travel is over … Is it what we want to do? I’m not sure.”