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Congress’s Criticism Of Frontier For Social Distance Seating Is Nuts

Congress's Criticism Of Frontier
Photo: Jonathan Tallman

Congress’s Criticism Of Frontier For Social Distance Seating Is Nuts

Last week, Frontier Airlines announced a policy where passengers could purchase an empty middle seat along with their ticket.  The purpose of the policy was to allow those worried about social distancing to be separated from other passengers.  The policy was in addition to Frontier’s move to require face masks and their future plan to start temperature checks.  The policy caused outrage, and members of Congress got involved.  Frontier Airlines ended up abandoning the policy before it even took off.

In the initial letter, Congressmen Steve Cohen and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and Senator Edward Markey said, “The flying public should not be charged extra to stay healthy on flights.”

After Frontier abandoned the policy, Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN) said, “Frontier is doing the right thing: keeping its passengers and crews safe and not charging passengers to keep a healthy distance from one another.”

But what, exactly, is so bad about Frontier’s now-abandoned social distancing policy?

No Federal Mandate

For starters, there is currently no federal mandate for social distancing on U.S. commercial airplanes.  Some airlines have taken matters into their own hands by limiting capacity of their flights to ensure social distancing.  But that is a voluntary decision those airlines took to ensure passengers are comfortable flying at a time many people are wary of getting on a plane.

Cohen said that his purpose for criticizing Frontier was to ensure passenger confidence in flying again.  But isn’t that exactly what Frontier’s policy did?  While other airlines are capping seat sales — a policy that will likely lead to higher fares — Frontier found a way to enhance consumer confidence and increase revenues.  That’s exactly the type of policy that makes sense.  It makes even more sense given there is no federal mandate requiring they have social distancing on their aircraft.

There Are Other Options

Of course, as is often the case with politicians, they pretend this is in the interest of people.  But is it?  It’s entirely possible that Frontier won’t have social distancing on their planes now if there is a full flight.  While the airline says it currently allows people to social distance for free, that’s based on available space.  As passenger traffic increases, there will be less “free” space for passengers to distance themselves.

You have three options if you don’t feel safe flying:

  1. Stay Home: You don’t have to fly.  It’s that simple.  Yes, some people are essential and will be required to fly.  But many people don’t have to fly and will merely be choosing to do so.  If you truly feel that it is unsafe to fly, stay home.
  2. Buy a spare seat: You have the option to purchase an empty middle seat.  While Congress seems to not like this method, it’s a perfectly reasonable policy that gives people confidence to fly and doesn’t cut into airline revenue.
  3. Fly private: You can always fly private if you are that worried about it.  Is it expensive?  Sure is.  But then again, so is airlines losing revenue because people think they should get a private airplane experience on a commercial airliner.

Bottom Line

It doesn’t take much for members of Congress to get riled up about something.  But the reality is Frontier’s policy was exactly what the industry needed.  It was a measure to give those worried about flying a peace of mind.  But at the same time it gave a flailing industry the ability to increase revenue.  That’s exactly how the market should work.

As always, Congress puts its nose where it shouldn’t.  Meanwhile, Congress is mostly silent as airlines cut employee hours to cut costs, after taking billions in taxpayer dollars for payroll expenses.

If these members think it should be a mandate to social distance on planes, make it one.  Absent that, don’t tell an airline what they should or shouldn’t do when it comes to policies where consumers have choices.  It’s just one more way the free market is torn down by overzealous members of Congress who just want to find something else to fire a letter off about.


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  1. I have never seen so many bloggers so supportive of an airline and additional fees. Yes it’s voluntary, but still threatens you with a higher likely-hood (rather than pure luck) of sitting beside somebody than if you don’t pay it.

    Airlines limiting capacity (without an additional charge) would have soon followed suit if Frontier’s plan had been better received.

    1. Airlines are already going to upcharge you when they sell at 60% capacity. I don’t seriously believe airlines will be charitable and just accept losing 40% in seat revenue. At first, they may do that to get people back in the air. But there will come a point where seats will come at an upcharge to make up for the lost revenue. The only difference is Frontier’s version was completely transparent about the charge, whereas with Delta and others it will simply be worked into the price.

  2. @Jonathan – Isn’t everything worked into the price being transparent? It seems to be what we want from hotels.

    The time would also have come when Frontier would have dropped the offer, unless the’re out to be charitable. Is Frontier planning any Discount Den rebate?

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