Would You Pay for a Neighbor Free Seat?


By Robert McGarvey


Etihad is about to find out if we are ready to pay to keep the seat next to us empty.  Will you pay?

According to CNN, starting July 3, passengers will be able to bid at the time of booking on keeping up to three neighboring seats vacant.

The carrier also has opened up its business class lounges to economy passengers, granting access for up to $250 in its hub in Abu Dhabi and $75 in Europe and the US.

As for the club, you know my opinion. Some genuinely suck, but when there’s a Centurion Lounge nearby I am all in

I also have praise for the lounges I have been in in Europe – so maybe I’d splurge on the Etihad access offer.

But it’s the empty seats that got my attention. Partly it’s an appealing idea.  Indeed.

I am old enough that I remember pretty much never having a passenger next to me when I was stuck in economy. Never as in it just did not happen.

So color me interested in the Etihad deal – and know that if it catches on – other carriers, always on the hunt for new revenue streams, will pile on.

There is a kind of genius to Etihad’s plan. Take a non performing asset – a seat that will be unsold – and monetize it anyway.  It’s the kind of gambit that airline beancounters will applaud, if enough of us take the plunge.

Three issues occur to me.

Will other passengers honor the empty seats – or will they snag them and then what happens? Etihad believes that a special wrapper will in fact be sufficient to keep the seats empty and maybe that is so in the Middle East.  

Color me skeptical that it would work on flights out of Newark NJ. Is it worth a scene to evict a seat snatcher?

Will flight attendants help out?

We’ll find out as the Etihad bidding rolls out – but I have real concern about how this would play in the US with passengers already inclined to be unruly.

The second concern is that bidding on a seat to stay empty is hard to handicap – what’s a rational bid?  Understand: the seat is empty when the bid is placed.  Etihad is not going to dislodge a fare paying passenger just because you want an empty seat next to you – unless of course you were to bid more than the passenger’s fare in which event you might as well save money and simply pay the fare to grab an empty seat.  

Buying a seat with the intent of keeping it empty doesn’t always work – here’s a recent case where it failed on Spirit – but most of the time it will.

But Etihad is letting you bid less than the fare  How much less? You don’t know and pretty much certainly you are bidding against other passengers and the highest bids will prevail.

What’s a rational bid? You don’t know.  Something less than the typical fare but who knows how much less?

How would you know if you are overbidding?

The math is more than a little maddening.

My third concern is this: will businesses reimburse these phantom fares for their travelers?  There’s just no knowing.

I’m no accountant but I believe the phantom fare would pass the IRS’s screening – that is, it looks like a legit tax deduction to me.

But that doesn’t mean a company will reimburse it – and many companies  have bars against whole classes of reimbursement.  Some refuse to pick up minibar charges.  Some won’t reimburse inroom movies.  Some won’t pick up bar bills.  A company pretty much can make its own rules about what it will reimburse and I believe most would be flummoxed about the cost of a phantom seat.

So they might not reimburse.

If I had an Etihad flight coming up – I don’t – I’d probably take a flyer and put in a nonsense bid, maybe $10 to keep the seat next to me empty.

Would Etihad take it?  Logically it should if it has empty seats, because $10 in hand is better than $0.

Would it?

Passengers who  bid – successfully or unsuccessfully – are  invited to use the comment form to relate their outcomes.  That’s how we will all learn how to bid smart.

And – as I said – if this Etihad gambit catches on, you know other carriers will follow. So just maybe the gamble is coming to a plane near us.






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