As the coronavirus pandemic began to spread across the globe, airlines were one of the first industries affected in a dramatic way. Many of them, like Delta and Southwest, took steps to reduce capacity and create at least a minimal version of social distancing among passengers. For example, Delta has said it will sell only 50-60 percent of seats on most of its flights, and will not sell middle seats through at least the end of August.
Both United and American had taken similar precautions, though that appears to be ending. On Friday, American announced that it would start booking flights to capacity again starting July 1, even as cases of Covid-19 have increased, including in American's home state of Texas.
United says it will continue to reduce capacity throughout July, but currently does not block off middle seats. That change is what's making many people angry with the airlines.
Under non-pandemic circumstances, no one likes sitting in the middle seat: it's extremely uncomfortable to be stuck next to someone you don't know on a long flight. Most of us would be happier not being in the middle, sharing armrests on two sides.
That some airlines have made a choice to not sell middle seats has made those who need to travel happy--or at a minimum, a little less anxious. American Airlines, on the other hand, is not winning any fans right now. In fact, it's likely costing itself customers with its decision.
At the same time, airlines won't survive with planes taking off at only half-capacity. That simply isn't a business model that can last over the long-term. While they may have taken steps to mitigate the spread of a highly infectious respiratory virus, at some point the economics of air travel don't work with that many empty seats.
As JetBlue's CEO, Robin Hayes said during a conversation with The Washington Post, "most airlines have a break-even load factor of 75 to 80 percent, so clearly capping flights at 55 to 60 percent, which is what we're doing right now ... is not sustainable."
The dilemma isn't reserved for airlines, by the way. Every business is facing the same question right now, including yours. If you're a restaurant, it simply isn't profitable to operate below a certain capacity. If you're a salon, the same is true, just as it is for a hardware store, etc. Do you reopen and invite your customers back, even if it comes at the risk of public safety?
The challenge is balancing the needs of your business, in the long-term, with the need to protect your customers, your team, and your community in the short-term. While that equation looks different for every business, the lesson of the airlines is this: If the economics of your business are such that you aren't able to serve your customers without putting them at risk, it might be time to revisit how you do business.