EasyJet, a British discount airline, has long emulated US-based Southwest and let boarding passengers just grab whatever open seat suited their fancy. Now, however, they are introducing assigned seating — or as the Brits apparently prefer — allocated seats (EasyJet to launch allocated seats on all flights, The Guardian, Sep 5). Here is how it is going to work:
Allocated seating will be rolled out across easyJet’s network from November, with all passengers allocated a seat. Those wishing to change their seat will be charged £12 for front row and over-wing seats, £8 for berths in the four rows behind the front row, and £3 to reserve a seat anywhere else on the plane. Passengers who don’t pay for a particular spot will be randomly allocated a seat as well when they check in, free of charge, although the chances of getting a seat up front will be diminished. “The majority of people will not have to pay for their seat,” said an easyJet spokesman, adding that the airline would attempt to seat families together even if they don’t pay for specific seats.
What does £3 buy you? As this graphic shows, the bulk of a plane’s seats can be had pretty cheap.
I find this an interesting change because it potentially puts in conflict two competing objectives. One is operational efficiency. The standard story on Southwest is that open boarding is just faster and and facilitates quick turnarounds at the gate. Planes are in the air making money and not idle on the ground.
The other goal is also about making money, but based on extracting more per passenger. EasyJet new system replaces one in which a limited number of passengers could pay a premium (£10) to be in the first boarding group. As a different Guardian article points out, this new scheme potentially provides much more revenue (EasyJet’s allocated seating plan likely to pay off, Sep 5).
Speedy boarding – the right to get on first – was charged at an average £10 and could be sold to a maximum of about 30 passengers. That’s a potential £300 per flight. But, note, easyJet has never revealed the achieved figures.
Under the allocated seating system, 18 seats with extra legroom (the front row plus two rows near emergency exits) will be available at £12 a pop. That’s a maximum of £216. Then there’s another £192 up for grabs from selling seats in rows 2-5 at £8 each. Plus £3 a seat for guaranteed slot elsewhere on the plane. Yes, easyJet should be quids in.
Quids in, indeed. So there is a question here of whether EasyJet is really going to sacrifice efficiency at the gate or whether we (i.e., ops professors like myself) have all been overstating the impact of open boarding. EasyJet claims that in the tests they have done (they have been offering allocated seats on a subset of flights for several months) that they have not seen a significant increase in boarding times or in late flights.
There might be an important factor in play here: The general behavior of air travelers may have changed over the last several years. Now even with assigned seats there is now an incentive to avoid dillydallying in the airport bar and board promptly. The last one in gets no overhead space. It may be that the real benefit of open boarding is not avoiding fussing with boarding passes etc but in inducing people to get on early.
Two other points to make. First, this system can pose a hard problems for some passengers. There are some people who will spring for premium seats with extra space because they are tall or claustrophobic. Similarly, families on vacation generally prefer sitting together (at least on the outbound flight). These passengers are likely to pay for sure and they will not row 26. But if you are not in either of these groups, should you pay to know your seat now? It depends a lot on how crowded the flight will be and how many other passengers you expect to buy guaranteed seats. Passengers may have some general information (flights are more full at the holidays than in September) but they are at a definite informational disadvantage relative to the firm. That raises the question of whether EasyJet would be better off providing some information about how many passengers typically spring for an early assigned seat.
A second observation is that plans such as EasyJet’s for inducing customers to pay for a particular seat raise some etiquette challenges. When essentially everyone had an equal shot at most seats, it was generally pretty easy to get someone to swap seats — certainly for when a five-year old was separated from his parents but even for spouses in different rows. But once people have paid for particular seats either explicitly or by being loyal to a particular airline, that is not so easy and potentially makes even a short hop a long flight if you decline to accommodate a stranger wanting to sit with his wife. (Check out this New York Times article for more on this.)