Simon Calder: British Airways cuts out the middle man (or woman)

Project Noah: a neat name for the latest initiative from British Airways. From next month, business travellers will be able to board the airline's arks two by two.

In a week in which BA revealed a decline in the number of seats occupied, particularly in Club class, the airline's latest cunning plan might surprise you. BA is promoting a plan to sell fewer seats, by cutting out the middle man (or woman) in its Club Europe cabins.

At present, business class on short-haul flights is configured with two seats on one side and three on the other. The airline has told its frequent flyers that, from 23 February, it will leave the centre seat of three empty on Club Europe services.

"This new configuration will offer customers a guaranteed window or aisle seat, and therefore provide customers with greater privacy, enhancing their ability to work and rest onboard."

BA expects this new scheme to boost earnings from the average flight; premium passengers will pay more, the airline hopes, for the privilege of never needing to share an armrest with a stranger.

The middle seat is rarely a good place to be. Next time you are on a no-frills flight, witness the dismay among the last stragglers to board, who find that they have no choice but to crowbar themselves into the space marked "B" or "E", rather than enjoying a window or aisle seat.

The worst of all possible inflight worlds used to be the centre seat in a row of five aboard a wide-bodied jet such as a DC10 or Lockheed Tristar; some Boeing 777s persist with the same configuration. Some time ago the aircraft manufacturer quizzed passengers about the benefit of having an empty seat next to them, it reached a surprising conclusion: Boeing estimates that travellers value this unpaid-for personal space as equivalent to eight extra inches of legroom.

From one point of view, cutting out the middle man or woman could be an astute move. Given the decline in business-class passengers, the airline may have concluded it was never going to sell those seats anyway and made a virtue of necessity. But from other perspectives, it is an odd decision.

For a start, part of the joy of travel is in meeting strangers; and many people travelling with a partner or colleague actually want to sit in close proximity. Indeed, if a trio of fellow workers are travelling together, then they will find BA's change less comfortable, since they would not be able to be allocated seats together.

Life will also get tougher for those of us in the cheap seats in the back. Reducing the number of occupied seats on a plane from five abreast to four might look like a capacity reduction of 20 per cent in the Club Europe cabin. In fact, the size of the business-class section is whatever the airline says it is; the moveable curtain means extra room can always be made available for high-spenders. So the effect will be to leave the number of available seats in business unaffected, but cut the number of economy spaces.

At present, 40 business-class passengers can be accommodated in eight rows of seats. From 23 February, they will take up 10 rows. This removes two rows from the economy cabin, leaving a dozen fewer seats on sale and pushing up the fares for those that remain.

Were "load factor" – the percentage of seats occupied – constant, the new policy would not be a problem; on a typical BA flight, one seat out of every four is empty. But loads are uneven, and vary according to the time and day. On a route such as Heathrow to Berlin, a lunchtime flight on a Tuesday is likely to be lightly loaded, while a Friday evening departure could well be full. At times, British Airways is certain to find itself in the extraordinary position of turning away prospective (and probably desperate, high-spending) passengers. Staff will be obliged to say no space is available, when in fact there are as many empty seats as rows in Club Europe.

Most alarming of all is the potential effect on the planet. BA insists: "Our environmental strategy is to ensure we lead the industry in managing and minimising our environmental impact." A laudable aim, but deliberately despatching aircraft with a dozen or more empty seats looks an odd way to fulfil "green" credentials.

Bums on business seats

As capitalism crumbles at about the same pace as interest rates, I am unconvinced that British Airways' plan to sell the window and aisle seats in Club Europe at a premium is the best strategy. In these straitened times, I suggest a more proletarian solution: sell the middle seat at a discount.

Next Friday evening, for example, I am flying on BA from Heathrow to Berlin. From a starting point in central London, I had a choice of flights to the German capital from Stansted on Ryanair for £60, from Gatwick on easyJet for £70, or on British Airways from Heathrow for £90.

Marx and Engels, who concocted the Communist Manifesto in Berlin, would be no-frills fans. But to avoid the long trip to Stansted followed by the Animal Farm-like Ryanair experience, and to arrive at Berlin's more convenient Tegel airport, I paid the extra for BA. And had I been offered the option of adding an extra £20 or £30 for that unloved middle seat in Club Europe, I would have paid up for the privilege of being only slightly less equal than other Club passengers.

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