The middle seat – whether a public relations exercise or airlines putting customer concerns at the centre of their Covid strategy, it is clear that traveller care remains a policy driver

27 August, 2020

There has been a huge debate about airlines blocking of middle seats and while there are obvious benefits from leaving the seat empty, there is little medical evidence to suggest that the aircraft cabin is a more risky environment for virus transmission. In fact, it is a much more sterile environment than many other locations where people come into close proximity.

Research from the MIT Sloan School of Management, the business school of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, had highlighted that the benefits of a vacant middle seat could almost half the risk of infection to around 1 in 7,700, but the risk even if all economy class seats are full on an aircraft is just 1 in 4,300. This has led some observers calling the whole debate over middle seats as a public relations exercise to appease those with travel fear.

The views vary among airlines. Among the US majors United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby has stated that there is no such thing as social distancing on a plane, implying that limited distancing confers no real benefit compared to none, a few that has been echoed by executives at leading LCCs, the loudest unsurprisingly being Michael O’Leary at Ryanair. In fact United’s communications team did go as far as saying “when it comes to blocking middle seats, that’s a PR strategy, that’s not a safety strategy,” during a call with reporters.

But some across both business models continue to employ promises of maintaining vacant empty seats on aircraft, among them JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines and perhaps the main advocate being Delta Air Lines. The US major has extended the blocking of middle seats or capping of capacity on its aircraft until 6-Jan-2021, which at this point its longer than any other US airline.

Delta says it is extending the policy as part of numerous measures it has adopted to ensure passenger safety, but it is clear the capping of passenger levels onboard is helping to boost brand loyalty. Recently, Delta started that its net promoter score (NPS) grew 20 points year-on-year in the month of Jun-2020. And company CEO Ed Bastian has told Bloomberg the airline is aiming for an NPS of 65.

He notes that passengers are switching their loyalty to Delta due to the safety practices the airline has in place to ensure cleanliness and comfort. “Achieving this level of customer satisfaction will help bring in the additional revenue we need to reduce our cash burn”, he told the publication.

But the airline is making amendments and expanding the capacity cap to 75% from its current 60% cap in the main cabin beginning 1-Oct-2020 and from the same date will not block seats in business class on widebody jets, as the airline has conduced that its Delta One offering is already designed with more space and privacy built in.

Delta may have gained from its policy, but perhaps it is the wider way it has approached customer interactions as after all the May-2020 edition of the Air Travel Consumer Report from the US Department of Transportation (DoT) shows a +1591% year-on-year increase in airline service complaints during the month to 21,914, up +10.4% from Apr-2020. Over 95% of these complaints were related to refunds.

A crisis is a great time for companies to build loyalty and a time that they most need it too. But it is also a time when they could lose even the biggest of supporters. How they perform during such a time can ultimately be make or break with short-term attitudes having long-term impacts.

In research for customer engagement platform Braze, market research specialist Wakefield Research says brand loyalty is actually generally getting weaker than ever during the Covid-19 times with a quarter (26%) of consumers having tried a new brand during the pandemic—and almost all (95%) planning to use them again. Rising NPS scores seem to be breaking the trend.

In Europe, leisure carrier Condor Flugdienst has seen its NPS rise to +41.2 in Jul-2020, the highest score since its first survey back in Oct-2014. According to the survey results, almost two thirds (60.1%) of passengers said they would recommend the airline to others, with respondents satisfied with punctuality, condition of the aircraft and safety standards. Condor’s director of customer experience Rainer Kröpke describes the score as a "remarkable result" in "challenging times like these".

What it shows is that the policies and measures the German airline is employing are appreciated by customers. In other cases airlines are finding new solutions and being innovative and seeing the impact with rising NPS performance.

In Brazil, Azul implemented a new boarding process called ‘Tapete Azul’, or ‘blue carpet’, which uses projectors and screens around the boarding area to create a moving carpet image on the floor, guiding customer to board when their row or group is called. The carrier says that on average this innovation reduces boarding times by 25% and increases NPS by 21% and by the end of the year, it expects to have this system adopted for 70% of its flights.

But, business travellers are particularly concerned and confidence is low. Another survey conducted by Wakefield Research in May-2020 and Jun-2020 this time for travel and expense management specialist SAP Concur, found that companies now see health and safety as more than twice as important as achieving business goals during trips (34% versus 16%). The survey of UK business travellers and travel managers found the most common emotions felt by employees about their next business trip are anxiety (43%) and worry (37%).

All these examples and the middle seat debate highlight that as business travel recovers, traveller confidence will become more important than ever, and duty of care considerations will take on an even greater level of prominence in the travel process, right from booking, through the journey, even after its conclusion and potential quarantine requirements.