US airline drops ‘outrageous’ plan to charge extra for ‘socially distanced’ seats

Democrats accused the budget airline of profiteering over health concerns and pushed for federal guidlines on in-flight social distancing 

Gino Spocchia
Thursday 07 May 2020 11:01
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US budget airline carrier Frontier Airlines is dropping plans to charge passengers extra to sit next to an empty middle seat after congressional Democrats accused the airline of trying to profit from concerns over the coronavirus.

“We recognise the concerns raised that we are profiting from safety and this was never our intent,” Frontier CEO Barry Biffle said on Wednesday in a letter to three lawmakers. “We simply wanted to provide our customers with an option for more space.”

Mr Biffle said the airline would withdraw it’s ‘More Room’ plan that was announced on Monday, which would have asked Frontier passengers to pay $39 (£31.50) to ensure they were sat next to an empty - or ‘socially distanced’ - middle seat.

The ‘More Room’ plan was to start with Frontier Airlines flights on Friday and continue until August 31.

Meanwhile, other airlines have made plans to block middle seats from being sold when air travel resumes amid the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, without an additional fee for passengers.

The move caused outrage among Democrats on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, with Peter DeFazio, chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, describing it as “capitalising on fear.”

Sen. DeFazio added that the Denver-based airline was using the need for social distancing “as an opportunity to make a buck”, and that its plans were "outrageous".

Sen. Amy Klobuchar commented on Frontier Airlines’ plans in a congressional hearing on COVID-19’s impact on the airline industry on Wednesday.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for some passengers who can’t afford to pay an additional charge for a seat to be less safe than other travellers,” said Ms Klobuchar.

US air travel has dropped more than 90 per cent on the previous year, with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti last month warning that it could take more than a decade for airlines to bounce back from Covid-19.

Whilst many flights are nearly empty, some images that have circulated on social media have shown fuller flights - causing airlines to reconsider how best to block seats to distance passengers.

Frontier Airlines boss, Mr Biffle, denied that he was charging for social distancing.

He told The Associated Press this week that “We are offering the option, and it is guaranteed. We don’t believe you need it — if everybody is wearing a facial covering – to be safe”.

During Wednesday’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing, the president of Airlines for America, a trade group for the biggest US carriers, said none of his airlines have a similar charge. Frontier is not a member.

The trade group official, Nicholas Calio, said other airlines block some middle seats and board passengers from back to front to keep spacing on planes.

Mr Calio told Sen. Klobuchar that airlines did not need federal government guidelines to be issued on the matter.

“Hopefully the market will take care of that,” said Mr Calio.

“Well, it didn’t with Frontier,” Ms Klobuchar responded.

Hilary Godwin, dean of the school of public health at the University of Washington, said the Frontier policy “is exactly the reason that some national-level guidance” is needed for social distancing on airlines and in airports.

Mr Biffle announced Frontier would drop the ‘More Room’ charge idea in a letter to Democratic Congress members.

Additional reporting by The Associated Press

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