Would You Pay Extra to Sit Next to an Empty Seat?

One carrier is betting you will

June 26, 2017 9:00 am

It’s the last great treat of flying: an economy seat … next to another economy seat. But one of them is yours, and the other is empty. 

Get lucky in the economy lottery and you basically get a class upgrade for nothing. Give us a choice between a spot in premium economy and two seats in economy and we’d probably take the latter. And that opportunity pales in comparison to the ultimate win: a row of empty economy seats on an overnight flight. 

Hey, it happens. Sometimes you’re lucky, sometimes you’re not. 

But now one airline is looking to monetize the win. 

Etihad Airlines, based in Abu Dhabi, will soon begin offering up to four empty economy seats to passengers looking for a bit of extra space. Customers will be able to “bid” on empty spots a few days before departure. Bid high enough, and the seat next to yours will be marked with a special headrest — intended to keep interlopers from grabbing the empty space. 

We’re torn: the empty seat is a great, rare perk. There aren’t many thrills in most economy cabins — but realizing your neighbor isn’t going to show is definitely one of them. Now, that small, nice thing will be passed out to the highest bidder. 

Etihad, the carrier behind the promotion, has seen mixed results in recent years (sample headline: “One Simple Reason Not To Believe Etihad’s Claim Of Profitability“). Its longtime CEO, James Hogan, will step down this year after shepherding the airline from a dozen planes to a fleet several times that size. And we know from the case of Virgin that airlines that treat passengers well get sucked into Alaska Airlines

f you’re good with a system that rewards the highest bidder, this is great news. If, on the other hand, you prefer life with a bit more serendipity, feel free to see this as a depressing sign of things to come — or more specifically, things that are already coming, along with for-fee blankets, food, entertainment, etc. 


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