Flair says it is responding to market demand by adding a “Comfort Choice” section to the front of its planes
Canadian carrier Flair Airlines says changing market demand due to the pandemic is causing the ultra low-cost carrier to abandon its single-class structure and add a “Comfort Choice” seating at the front of its aircraft.
The airline announced this week it would block off the middle seat in the first six rows of the aircraft, guaranteeing extra room for people prepared to pay almost $50 for the privilege.
“The customer is just saying, ‘I don’t want to fly, but if I do, I don’t want anyone sitting next to me, what can you do?'” said John Mullins, Flair’s Vice President of Customer Experience and Airports, in an interview Friday with Western Aviation News. “We just can’t physically block seats off and not sell them and refuse potential passengers.”
Mullins said Flair receives about 2,000 calls a day from potential passengers who are nervous about getting back on an aircraft. Airline and airport executives agree that most people won’t travel unless and until they feel safe.
With health officials telling the public that the most effective safeguard against catching COVID-19 is to stay 2 metres away from others, flying cheek by jowl with 100 other people is a daunting prospect.
Right now, Flair is down to bare-bones service. It flies just eight transcontinental flights a week, four from Vancouver to Toronto and four in the opposite direction. Two days, the flight stops in Edmonton, and the other two in Calgary.
And while airlines, including Flair could rely on low passenger loads to ensure physical distancing in April and May, now that summer is just around the corner, Mullins said that’s no longer the case. In the past few days, Flair has seen its aircraft depart with loads in the 65-70% range.
“We’re starting to notice an uptick where you can’t assume the plane is going to be 70% empty and there’s just going to be space all over the place on board the aircraft,” he said. “In our analytics right now, the uptick has been almost on a daily basis as well as our future bookings.”
So @FlairAirlines has no spacing changes in regards to seating arrangements during COVID-19. People are sitting right next to one another and the only requirement is to wear a mask. I’ve seen people purchase food for the flight not sure how well this is gonna work… pic.twitter.com/MGbKMbUJk4— Raman S
(@ramanskular) May 29, 2020
Those driving the uptick, said Mullins, are people who have to fly but want a bit more space around them.
“[The Comfort Choice seats] are the first seats that are being snapped up right now,” he said.
“On a 737-800 when we’ve got 189 seats on board, if we stripped out the middle, that would be one-third of the revenue we wouldn’t have,” said Mullins. “That’s just not a viable position.”
Mullins said fares would have to rise 50% to make up the difference.
“I can’t ask you to buy two seats,” he said. “I could, but that’s not really an option.”
The change is a risk for the airline that bills itself as Canada’s only independent low-fare carrier.
Denver-based Frontier Airlines was forced to abandon a similar scheme in early May after heavy criticism, some of it from leaders in Congress, that the airline was trying to profit from people’s fears of the coronavirus.
Mullins watched the campaign implode, but said for Flair the opportunity outweighed the risk.
“We just took the adage that if that’s your choice, then it’s status quo,” he said. For those who don’t want to pay, say, because they’re travelling as a family of four, “just book the middle seat as you would normally.”
Before the pandemic, Flair announced ambitious growth plans for the summer, announcing new flights to Charlottetown, Saint John, and for the first time for a ULCC, Ottawa.
Mullins said those plans are still in the works, but so much depends on the evolution of the coronavirus.
“Right now we’re just abiding by the Premiers in each of the Maritime provinces,” he said. “When they want tourists to come in, we’re poised, we’re ready to go, as per our original summer programme.”
Flair is not the first Canadian airline to block the middle seat as a way of adding space for passengers. In the 1990s, Canadian Airlines blocked the middle seat in its 737s as a way of offering a form of business class, as did Westjet. Unlike Flair, both offered enhanced services in those rows to create a premium product aimed business traffic.
For Flair, nor is there any guarantee the new arrangement will last.
“If there is no demand there, we’ll reduce the rows, or eliminate the programme altogether,” said Mullins. “But over the past three weeks, almost a month, that’s been one of the key drivers from our call centres.”
In the aviation business, it’s all about survival, especially when a pandemic shakes your business to its core.
“You have to do what it takes,” said Mullins. “If we listen to some of what the public wants, which is ‘I want the centre seat empty and I don’t want to pay any more’ airlines won’t survive.”