The Economist: Free Economy Plus Seating Upon Availability – An Option?

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Why do premium seats stay empty and should passengers be moved to Economy Plus (Premium Economy) seats free of charge when those are available upon departure?

Economy Class

Some say ‘why not?’ while others (paying passengers) refuse such an option as it undermines the pricing structure and their own investment in a premium seat.

Were you sometimes sitting in the back of the plane and walked through an empty Business or Premium Economy Class and wondered ‘Why can’t they just let people sit there’?

On one hand the answer is clear: The airline is in business to make money and not to fill up premium seats free of charge. If that was the case than people (especially Elite Fliers) wouldn’t book premium cabins anymore and hope for a free upgrade instead. The same phenomenon can be seen with domestic First Class in the U.S. where the vast majority of the First Class cabin is filled with Elite Upgrades (some high yield routes aside).

The Economist whose paper copy and website I tend to read on a regular basis had an article last week investigating this issue as well (access here).

… In the comments section, one complained of how a family of four had been placed at the back of an otherwise empty plane. When they asked whether they could move to better seats they were told that it would cost them $120. Another responded to the article by posting a picture on Twitter of a half-full flight with the gripe that “Empty econ+, but @united stews won’t let pax sit there unless pay $”.

Twitter Bob Carey

Coincidentally, a long-limbed colleague had recently shelled out for a premium-economy seat on a Delta flight from Orlando to New York. When he got back to London he cornered me in the office and launched into the sort of angry “I’ll tell you what you ought to write about” conversation that business-travel bloggers must regularly endure. My colleague had been outraged when, just before take-off, a man in the cheap seats asked the stewardess whether he could nab the empty seat next to him. The stewardess happily agreed. What was the point in paying an extra $50, he moaned, if you can get the upgrade free, just by asking? It made him feel “a schlub” for paying the premium, he said.

This raises an interesting point. Not the airlines willingness to give up these seats free of charge but also the sentiment of paying passengers when they see others get the same service/premium seat for free.

It has been established and more or less accepted that certain Elite Status Holders receive such free upgrades and one could say that such passengers retain that benefit by giving loyalty to the airline. But as the example in the article shows by giving it away to any Joe who asks for it creates bad blood.

How to deal with empty premium seats presents airlines with a dilemma. My colleague was being irrational—but then, as behavioural economists are always telling us, consumers do tend to be. Being over six feet tall, he had decided that $50 was an acceptable amount to pay to guarantee a comfortable flight. He should have viewed that decision as being independent from the good fortune of the upgraded passenger. Yet, it piqued his sense of fairness—just as leaving the seat unused would have irritated the people at the back of the plane.

Their argument would have run that the airline was being unnecessarily spiteful in confining them to the horrors of non-premium coach class when, for seemingly no extra cost, it could have bestowed a nice surprise upon one of them.

The key here is paying for the security of not being crammed in a tiny seat for x amount of hours and not having to gamble for an upgrade. One example. many airlines (Delta, United, American etc) sell affordable confirmed upgrades ahead of the flight and more often than not even Elite Fliers who would ‘maybe’ have gotten upgraded for free decide to rather pay a bit of money instead of gambling with the upgrade list.

The argument with the airline making Economy Class more uncomfortable than necessary by not moving people around would maybe be made by some passengers but then again people have to remember that they made that choice when buying their ticket. It is not the airlines duty to make your flight as comfortable as possible, they are in the transportation business and not a cruise liner for a Caribbean Holiday.

Conclusion

Flying Economy is something I do on a regular basis especially on shorter flights less than 3 hours. Thankfully right now I still have Elite Status with all three alliances which usually gives me an exit seat or some other preferred seating, sometimes the seat next to me will be blocked for extra space.

If I book Economy I decide to do so for the reason of price/value for money and unless the airline I fly has a system in place that entitles me to receive an upgrade through whatever instrument from my account it would be unreasonable to expect that they upgrade me free of charge while other passengers are paying.

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