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
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.
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.
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