Some businesses are more focused on customer experience than their competitors, and the ways the major U.S. airlines are responding to Covid-19 concerns illustrate this. While some brands have begun selling all available airplane seats when there is sufficient demand, others have blocked middle seats.

The problem of reassuring customers that air travel is safe during a pandemic is tricky. The airlines are experiencing low demand and are under extreme financial pressure. Traditionally, airlines have tried to fill planes to capacity, with 100% full being the most profitable condition. In the midst of a pandemic, though, many passengers are fearful of sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with a potentially infectious stranger. Some of these are avoiding flying altogether, while others have no choice but to take their chances in airports and on airplanes.

Some airlines are blocking the middle seat on all flights, but others are taking a less-flyer-friendly approach. The latter usually let a passenger change a reservation when a flight is too full. While cautious passengers don’t have to risk a packed cabin, changing flights could be very inconvenient if they must change flights, ground transport, hotel reservations, etc.

Seat Policy and Customer Experience

Blocking middle seats provides a better customer experience. No customers will complain about an empty middle seat. All flyers love a little more room, and cautious flyers appreciate the greater distancing while the threat from Covid-19 continues. The sole reason to not block middle seats is that doing so reduces the potential revenue for a flight.

As one objective measure of customer experience, I looked at the customer complaint rate for 2019 for ten U.S. airlines. The 2020 Airline Quality Rating offers customer complaint data for that year, and I ranked the airlines from the lowest number of monthly complaints (per 100,000 passengers) to the highest:

  1. Southwest 0.33
  2. Delta 0.51
  3. Alaska 0.6
  4. Hawaiian 0.74
  5. JetBlue 0.96
  6. United 1.41
  7. Allegiant 1.55
  8. American 1.64
  9. Frontier 2.57
  10. Spirit 2.85

While customer complaints to the DOT are hardly the only relevant metric for customer experience, they do show how hard the carriers are trying to minimize the mishaps that are bound to occur.

It’s not surprising that discount airlines Frontier and Spirit have a much higher complaint rate than the others. But, there’s a sharp divide between Southwest and Delta, who have the best complaint records, and their national competitors, United and American. The latter have three to five times as many complaints on a per-flight basis.

Empathy Counts

Empathy may not fix bad outcomes, but it can reduce the anger and frustration associated with them. If displayed empathy can reduce malpractice lawsuits against physicians, it will likely reduce complaints to the DOT. It’s likely that even when air travel mishaps occur, the way each airline handles them will affect the reported complaint rate.

Problems will occur in air travel, but not all passengers will be upset enough to file a complaint. If a passenger perceives that the airline staff are doing their best to correct the situation, they are less likely to file a complaint. Even an apology seen as genuine might help. But, if the flyer thinks the airline personnel lack empathy or aren’t trying hard enough, a complaint is more likely.

Good for the customer or the bottom line?

Business decisions often come down to a tradeoff between what benefits the customer and what is most profitable for the company.

For example, Amazon makes product returns incredibly easy, even to the point of packaging and labeling them at some drop-off points. This is costly for the company, but it is great for the customer. Customer-centric companies like Amazon focus on what’s best for their customer even when doing so costs money and reduces short-term profits. They expect that in the long run the sales growth and customer loyalty driven by their policies will produce profits for the shareholders.

When I looked at the middle seat policies at the time I wrote this, I found half of the ten airlines listed abovc were still blocking the middle seat.

While I expected to find some correlation with last year’s customer complaint rate, I was surprised to find that the split exactly followed the rankings. The airlines with fewer than one complaint per 100,000 are all currently blocking seats, while all the non-blockers had complaint rates of 1.41 and higher.

Beyond Complaints

When J. D. Power measured customer satisfaction in early 2020, they included a slightly different set of airlines. But, their rankings roughly matched the complaint data, with the top-rated brands being Southwest, JetBlue, Delta, and Alaska – all lines who still block the middle seat.

What can we conclude from this data? I think the chart shows that some airlines are more customer-focused than others, and that this focus remains consistent. The same airlines that had fewer complaints in 2019 and are more highly rated for customer satisfaction are the same ones blocking middle seats in late 2020.

In the coming months, I expect that all airlines will return to selling all their seats. But, frequent flyers are likely to remember which airlines incurred even higher short-term losses to offer passengers higher levels of safety and comfort in the time of Covid-19.