Two-thirds full airline idea

If you’re traveling today (at prices way higher in the U.S. than in Europe) on a jam-packed pre-holiday commercial flight, perhaps you’ll appreciate this business idea…

The Hainan Boston to Shanghai flight that I took was two-thirds full. The result was that the B787 loaded and unloaded faster than a full B737 or A320. Almost everyone enjoyed an adjacent empty seat.

Is there is a business idea here? Start an airline called “Two Thirds” with Hainan-style reasonable legroom and a guaranteed empty middle seat (exception: a family group of three that actually wants to use the whole row). Charge 50% more per seat (still a great deal compared to business class, which can be 3-7X the price due to the low density of seating). By paying 1.5X the lowest possible fare, the customer is guaranteed not to sit next to a morbidly obese person, overflowing into one’s space. At fares that are 1.5X what is currently charged, I think an airline could make superior profits. Airplanes will turn around faster at airports, so capital asset utilization will be better. Some flights wouldn’t have had more than two thirds occupancy anyway, so the aggregate revenue from a flight would be higher than the average revenue from an airline pursuing the minimum cost, maximum discomfort/crowding strategy.

Readers: Since nobody has tried this, I am going to assume that it is a bad business idea. But why?


  • the Europeans do this already just by calling coach with an empty middle seat “business class”; they’ve proven that people will pay extra for this service, but it isn’t directly comparable since the back of the plane may be jammed and therefore take a long time to load and unload

13 thoughts on “Two-thirds full airline idea

  1. You can already get a guaranteed empty middle seat for 2x the price by buying a 2nd ticket. Or the airlines could make the seats 50% bigger like they were 30 years ago & have 1/3 less of them. The airlines could send us to to remind us how good we’ve got it compared to general aviation.

    • lion2: In a plane that is 99% full, it would be nice to have the only empty seat on the plane adjacent to one’s own. But that’s not the same level of luxury as being on a plane that is 2/3rds occupied. It will take a long time to board/deplane. There may not be any space for overhead bags. Waiting times for bathrooms may be long. Flight attendants will not have as much time per passenger to provide service.

    • I was on an airline can’t remember which one. Lady next to me bought 2 seats. The flight was oversold so they put someone in the extra seat and refunded the lady for the extra seat. She was not happy about the situation.

  2. JetBlue makes it very easy to buy extra seats… My wife and I have been doing this routinely for a long time and never had the extra seat taken away from us even when plane was full. And 3 for 2 is exactly you 50% fare

  3. I refuse to believe that Boeing 737 is slower to unload than 787: we know for a fact that a 737 can unload itself fast during the flight. As to 787, that still remains to be seen: only minor battery fires have been reported so far.

    • Your brain is better than mine. I hadn’t made the connection. But, of course you’re right. I also made the point about Disney. We should be able to pay extra on “Crowd-hater Mondays” and enjoy some breathing space in the park!

      I will do a new post about what kind of airline the U.S. is. If we think of the U.S. as an enterprise designed to maximize government tax revenue, low-skill immigration to grow the GDP and therefore the tax base is kind of the same strategy as Spirit (with four big front seats for the rich people whom Elizabeth Warren’s proposes to attack while the rabble suffers in Row 2 and beyond). Australia, New Zealand, and Canada, on the other hand, are more like British Airways. All that they really care about are business class (high-skill or investor immigrants) taxpayers, but they still pay lip service to the economy class rabble (take in a handful of refugees for no obvious economic reason). China is like Hainan Airlines where they want everyone to have a great experience at a moderate price.

  4. is it possible the airlines are just down a rabbit hole with all this revenue management regime, when they could just remove the middle seats, reset fares, PROFIT! Maybe it’s like the “justice” system, too many people making money diddling with revenue management.

  5. I’m surprised some airline trying to peel customers away on a busy, routinely overcrowded route hasn’t tried this idea, given the litany of consumer complaints about crowding, seat pitch, legroom and personal space, because the commercials write themselves. Guarantee an empty middle seat, don’t oversell/overbook the flight, and everyone gets there more comfortably at a fraction of the business class price. If you’ve noticed it the need enough to write this post, I’ll bet there’s a market there.

  6. Idiot act Airlines—er, Spirit—will sell you their “Big Front Seat” for $50 more per leg. Their approach to boarding is admittedly a bit casual, but they know market segmentation better than most.

    Also, back in the day there was Midwest Express, who flew entire planes with domestic F seats and was known for spending more on inflight service than any other domestic airline though tickets were priced competitively. They were great but had a very limited route structure based out of Milwaukee and struggled badly post-9/11. Apparently there is an effort afoot to revive the brand, but not clear if it’s a revival like the Pan Am clipper fleet of Beech 1900s a few years back.

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