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.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Scottish singer Susan Boyle will perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action