Airline middle seats won't stay empty forever in the name of social distancing. Here's why

Of all the safety steps airlines are taking to lure travelers back onto their planes in the coronvirus era, the empty middle seat is the most alluring.

When you settle into the non-reclining middle seat next to the bathroom, you will be cursing your past self for being cheap and not paying the fee to select your seat.

What passenger in an aisle or window seat hasn’t wished or even prayed that the person heading down the aisle is not bound for the unoccupied seat next to them?

American, Southwest, United, Delta and other carriers are granting that wish in the name of social distancing by blocking middle seat assignments and/or not filling planes to capacity to assure passengers it’s safe to fly.

But passengers shouldn’t get too giddy about the extra space, experts and some airline executives say, because it won’t last forever.

“It’s a lovely soundbite,” said John Grant, senior aviation analyst with aviation analytics firm OAG. “It’s just not practical.”

He says the social distancing measures will be temporary, lasting perhaps through the Thanksgiving travel booking season.

It all comes down to money. Airlines make money when they fill a certain percentage of seats, and leaving middle seats empty means they’ll have to charge more for the remaining seats. 

The figure for low-cost carriers including Southwest and JetBlue, according to OAG: 52% more per passenger on average.

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Why an Airline Voucher Is Sometimes Better than a Cash Refund

an empty bench next to a glass of water

Over the past couple of months, many of us have learned about the ins and out of canceling flights. Phrases like cancel-for-any-reason insurance and airline voucher are now part of every traveler’s vernacular, and we’ve all found inventive ways to reach airline customer service representatives.

It’s also become second nature to demand that cash refund when canceling flights—and to firmly say no to the travel vouchers most airlines are offering. But should you ever consider taking that airline voucher over cash? Some experts say yes, but warn there are things to keep in mind when you do. Below, we walk you through the nuances of vouchers—the good, the bad, and the potentially negotiable—so you can make the best move next time you cancel a flight.

The case for getting your refund in cash

There are some obvious reasons to take cash over a voucher. Most of us like our money where we can see it, and it’s hard to justify letting an airline hang onto your money—especially when it looks like we won’t be flying any time soon. “From a high level, cash is better than a voucher because you can’t pay for groceries with an American Airlines gift card,” says Scott Keyes of Scott’s Cheap Flights. “If you had a $500 ticket, and they’re offering a $500 cash or voucher, cash is way superior because it’s fluid, and it doesn’t have an expiration date.”

Jesse Neugarten of Dollar Flight Club is team voucher, but he agrees there are certain situations in which to push for your money back. “If you’re low on cash and don’t plan to travel anytime in 2020 or 2021, more cash on hand may be the best bet for you,” says Neugarten. “Plus, some airlines, like Virgin Australia and smaller carriers, are shutting down, and they may not be able to honor vouchers in the future.” If you bought a ticket from an online travel agent like Expedia, Travelocity, or Orbitz, then you absolutely want your cash back as well, Neugarten says, and not a gift card or voucher you have no reason to use.

If you end up needing to cancel and rebook a second time, travel vouchers can cause issues with insurance, too. “If you’re buying travel insurance, we’ve been telling people not to take the voucher and to get a refund,” says Megan Moncrief, the chief marketing officer at insurance comparison website Squaremouth. “Historically, travel insurance providers widely grouped travel vouchers with points and miles, as award-based travel, which is typically uninsurable as there is no direct dollar amount associated with [the vouchers].” In laymen’s terms: If you book a flight with a voucher and have to cancel, your flight cost in an insurance claim would technically be zero, meaning you wouldn’t get any of that money back. Moncrief says that some providers are now changing their stance given the current situation, but it’s important to keep this in mind when purchasing travel insurance—something most of us are doing these days—and make sure to understand the coverage offered on award-based trips.


The case for taking the travel voucher

All that being said, there are times when it makes more sense to take a voucher—namely, when the airline is willing to offer you a credit of a higher value. “What the smart airlines are doing is offering an incentive to take the voucher,” says Keyes. “They might say you can take a $500 cash refund or a $600 travel credit [for your $500 flight], and that’s when it starts getting interesting.”

Neugarten says his Dollar Flight Club customers have reported the same. “American Airlines and Delta have been offering 10 to 20 percent bonus vouchers to those who elect to keep a credit with the airline, rather than take a refund,” says Neugarten. “These airlines are not advertising that yet, but they are offering this over the phone to select customers on a case-by-case basis, or to those who ask for it.” Few airlines, like Qatar Airways and Finnair, have formalized such offers, telling customers that all vouchers will receive 10 percent increases from the original flight prices.

“I think this poses a great opportunity for travelers to get additional value from their ticket by simply and persistently asking airline agents for these bonus vouchers,” adds Neugarten. “Though these bonus vouchers have been offered at random, some people have simply asked for them.” And if you’re wondering how to do the dance? Neugarten says they’ve found a script that has worked. They make sure to thank the agent, mention they’ve heard of other people taking these vouchers, and use these golden words: “I would prefer to keep my ticket if you would be willing to give me a bonus voucher. Does [insert airline name] have the ability to offer this? If not, I’d happily take the refund.” Given that airlines are legally required to offer cash refunds for canceled flights, it’s well-worth asking—you’ll either walk away with the cash you’re owed, or a higher value voucher.

“Passengers are in much more of a position of strength than they normally are,” says Keyes. “I haven’t heard of a passenger successfully negotiating a higher voucher, but it wouldn’t shock me if some airlines are in a position to do that. They need cash: They have so few incoming bookings and so many cancellations, so anytime they can hang on to a passenger’s money because that passenger agreed to take a credit instead of a refund, it’s worth trying.”

Whenever you take a voucher, read the fine print

If we’ve learned anything during our coronavirus cancellations, it’s to always, always read the fine print. And even when the voucher pot is, as Keyes says, being sweetened, make sure you understand the restrictions of a voucher before pouncing on it. “I’d look at two things,” says Keyes. “The deadline or expiration date can be problematic for a lot of them.” If a voucher expires, say, at the end of the year, it leads to a bigger question: Do you anticipate traveling by then? Is it even possible for you to use this credit?

“Secondly, who can use the voucher?” says Keyes. “Usually you can use [a voucher] to buy a ticket for anyone—a kid, a spouse, whomever—but sometimes the voucher is only eligible for the person who received it. That’s another instance when a voucher becomes level valuable than cash.” Keyes also suggests considering the airline offering the voucher, how frequently you fly it, and if the voucher works on partner airlines.

Vouchers are always better than miles

Last but not least, Keyes cautions that you should understand what type of travel credit you’re getting—and be wary of accepting miles or points instead of a typical voucher. “There’s a difference between a voucher and frequent flier miles,” says Keyes. Some airlines, he warns, have been sending customers tempting deals to accept miles as refunds, or to convert vouchers into miles. But miles are even less tangible than vouchers and harder to use to your advantage. “When you purchase a flight with a voucher, it’s like purchasing with cash: You get the same status, and importantly, you earn miles,” says Keyes. The same can’t be said for flights purchased with miles. The only real benefit to miles as a form of refund, for the average traveler, is that they sometimes have a further out expiration date, but at that point, you’re probably safest asking for your money back.

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How Australian airline Qantas is taking care of its grounded planes amid Covid-19

While millions of people around the world are cutting their own hair and inventing new recipes amid the Covid-19 pandemic, thousands of the world’s commercial airplanes are also getting much-needed rest.

a large passenger jet sitting on top of a building

Qantas has shared a video revealing how its planes are being maintained and cared for while grounded during Australia’s lockdown measures.

John Walker, the airline’s Melbourne-based Head of Line and Intermediate Maintenance Operations, shared that the planes are getting plenty of TLC while they sit in hangars waiting for global travel to resume.

“When you park an airplane, it’s not just like parking a car,” Walker explains. “You don’t just switch it off and lock the doors.”

The planes are towed periodically around so that their wheels can rotate, and service members clean the inside and outside of the aircraft. Depending on the model of the plane, its engine must be turned on either every 15 or 30 days, and the cockpit window is covered in tinfoil so the front of the aircraft won’t get too hot.  

Parking planes can be a challenge even at the best of times. Airplanes only earn money when they’re in the sky, and it can cost hundreds of dollars per hour to pay for storage of a single plane. Fees are often determined by the weight of the plane, with huge passenger aircraft being understandably more expensive to store.

It’s also preferable to store planes in warm areas, as dry air is less likely to corrode a plane’s metal parts.

Qantas, of course, isn’t the only airline in the world taking care of its grounded planes right now. 

Airlines like Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific and Germany’s Lufthansa have grounded some 90% of their fleets, with no idea how long it will take for travel numbers to reach their pre-virus peak again.

In the meantime, though, airplanes can “have their bath before bed,” as Walker puts it, presumably with bedtime story and glass of warm milk optional.

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This Airline Has Rescued Thousands of Americans Stuck Overseas During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Around the world, travel bans and quarantines have made it difficult for Americans to get home. And while many airlines have grounded planes and canceled flights, they do continue to help in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. In recent days, a number of carriers have helped ferry medical workers to places where they’re most needed.

a group of people holding wine glasses: The U.S. Department of State has tapped the upstart carrier — that shares a name with a famous Jet Age airline — to help ferry Americans home.

But one airline in particular stands out for its efforts to bring people from overseas back home. Eastern Airlines has already carried home 8,167 Americans from 13 countries, according to the company. Not bad for an outfit with just eight planes and fewer than 200 employees.

a large passenger jet sitting on top of a runway: Courtesy of Eastern Airlines

If the name sounds familiar, it should: Eastern Air Lines, with a slightly different spelling, was one of the titans of the Jet Age, a competitor of carriers like Braniff, Pan Am, and TWA. The original Eastern went bust in 1991, but the brand was reborn earlier this year: The first flight of the new Eastern — from Guayaquil, Ecuador, to New York City — took off on Jan. 12. Now, less than three months later, the airline is coming to the rescue of Americans across Latin America.

“We got our first call from the embassy in the country of Guayana, needing to get American citizens home,” CEO Steve Harfst said in an interview with Fox News. “And after we operated that flight, from Georgetown, Guayana, we reached out to the repatriation task force. They put an email blast out to all the embassies and posts in Central and South America, and then our phones started ringing.”

Since early March, Eastern has coordinated with the U.S. Department of State to ferry people home from Asuncion, Paraguay; Buenos Aires; Georgetown, Guayana; Guayaquil; Paramaribo, Suriname; and a number of other countries in the Caribbean and Central America. More flights are scheduled for the coming days, an Eastern representative told Travel + Leisure.

a group of people sitting around a bag of luggage: Courtesy of Eastern Airlines

“We’ll do everything we can to bring them home,” Harfst said.

Passengers and crew on the flights are observing social distancing measures and using masks and other personal protection equipment, including Eastern-branded hand sanitizer, photos from the flights provided by the airline show. Upon arrival in the U.S., passengers aboard the repatriation flights experience “the same screening protocols put in place by customs and CDC that any passenger arriving in the U.S. faces on any airline,” a spokesperson for Eastern said by email.

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British Airways extends revolving credit facility

British Airways has extended its United States dollar secured revolving credit facility for one year.

The move, confirmed by International Airlines Group, will take effect from June 23rd.

The amount available under the extended facility is $1.38 billion.

Including the extended facility and some smaller additional facilities recently arranged, IAG has total undrawn general and committed aircraft financing facilities equivalent to €2.1 billion currently, compared to €1.9 billion at the end of 2019.

IAG has not drawn down on any of its facilities.

IAG continues to have strong liquidity with cash, cash equivalents and interest-bearing deposits of €7.2 billion as of March 27th.

Total cash and undrawn facilities are currently €9.3 billion.

In addition, the group is exploring a number of operational and treasury initiatives to improve further its cash flow and liquidity and will update the market in due course.

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Norwegian secures NOK3 billion in government support

Low-cost carrier Norwegian has secured the necessary approvals to unlock emergency funding.

The Norwegian government last week proposed a guarantee of NOK6 billion for the Norwegian airline industry, of which up to NOK3 billion is directed to Norwegian.

The guarantee will be up to 90 per cent from the Norwegian government provided that financial institutions contribute with the remaining ten percent.

The guarantee scheme will consist of three tranches with a maximum two years maturity.

Two Nordic banks have now obtained credit committee approval to provide a guarantee to Norwegian for the required ten per cent for the first tranche.

Norwegian will secure the necessary headroom to pursue further guarantees from the Norwegian government, the carrier said.

The company added it was now working with GIEK and the ministry of trade, industry and fisheries to clarify the criteria and terms related to the remaining tranches under the scheme and to obtain further guarantees from financial institutions in order to back such remaining tranches.

Norwegian will update the market with its further plan of action and implications for its stakeholders as soon as the criteria and terms have been finalised.

Currently, most of the Norwegian fleet is grounded and the company has reduced its operations to a minimum.

Norwegian will primarily operate domestically in Norway and Sweden and between the Nordic capitals, in order to deliver on its corporate responsibility of maintaining critical infrastructure so that people and necessary goods and medical supplies can be transported during this unprecedented crisis.

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Coronavirus will affect the airline industry for years to come but not all of it will be bad

The airline industry will wear the scars of the coronavirus pandemic for a very long time.

On 19 March, Qantas announced it was grounding its entire international fleet. American Airlines suspended three quarters of its long haul international flights on 16 March.

Significant demand shocks aren’t new to the airline industry. In this century alone, it has weathered the storms caused by the 2001 September 11 attacks and the 2002-04 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic.

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But we have never before seen a shock of this magnitude affecting the entire world for what looks as if it will be a very long time.

So, will the airline industry be able to handle this predicament? What role will and should the governments play? And, when all this is over, what will have changed for good?

Many airlines can’t survive as they are

Right now, the name of the game, not only for the airlines but for most businesses, is liquidity – having money regularly coming in through the door.

An otherwise-solvent enterprise incapable of securing sufficient liquidity to cover its current costs can be forced into bankruptcy, and extreme uncertainty doesn’t help.

Although the airline industry had a good decade overall, finishing each of the last ten years in the black, its profit margins remain low, and profitability differences between regions and carriers are rather high.

Most airlines only have enough cash reserves to cover a few months of their fixed costs (costs that have to be paid regardless of whether their planes are flying).

Three options

The dynamics of the disease’s spread suggest that the extreme disruption we are seeing will stay with us for many months.

Governments will have to make hard decisions.

Broadly, they’ve three options:

  • let the struggling private airlines fall
  • offer them liquidity to help weather the storm
  • nationalise them, as the Italian government already has with Alitalia

I expect governments to use (and misuse) all three, with a significant number of small airlines (and potentially several mid-sized airlines) going out of business in the process.

The main argument that will be used for not allowing airlines to fail will be that connectivity will be an important driver of the post-crisis recovery.

This wider economic benefit will be emphasised by the governments that choose to bail out or nationalise their carriers.

Big airlines might get help, even if they’re weak

I expect larger carriers to receive priority treatment by governments based on the fact that they provide more connectivity, sometimes without regard to their long term viability.

This means that once the pandemic is over, travellers will likely find a more concentrated airline market, with fewer carriers in operation. A greater proportion of them will be government owned.

To start with, flight frequency will be lower and planes might be emptier, depending on the fleet mix the surviving airlines will use.

Whether prices will be higher or lower will depend on the interplay of demand and supply.

Fewer airlines and fewer flights would tend to drive airfares up, while lower demand and lower fuel prices after what is shaping up to be a global recession would drive airfares down. The net outcome is anyone’s guess.

I also expect an acceleration of product unbundling (food, drinks, baggage allowances and so on being sold separately), especially if recovery is slow and surviving airlines are under pressure to cut costs.

Last but not least, I should mention that it’s not only the airlines. Airports, aircraft manufacturers, and air navigation service providers will also find themselves under financial stress as demand evaporates.

The COVID-19 pandemic will stress-test the entire civil aviation industry, and when it is over – at least in the first months and maybe for years – the travelling public will return to an industry that has changed.

Volodymyr Bilotkach ​is an Associate Professor at Singapore Institute of Technolog​. This article first appeared on The Conversation.


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Gatwick Airport cuts staff, closes gates and suspends investment

Gatwick Airport has unveiled a series of steps designed to safeguard the “financial resilience” of the business in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

The plans will significantly reduce costs.

The spread of Covid-19 has had an unprecedented impact on the global aviation industry with airlines at Gatwick – including easyJet, British Airways, Norwegian Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and TUI – reporting reduced levels of traffic.

There have also been substantial cuts in planned capacity over the next two months.

In response, Gatwick will close to flights between midnight and 05:30 from Tuesday – except for emergency landings – and close two of its six piers.

In terms of capital expenditure, the airport is deferring spending on its investment programme for the foreseeable future.

Stewart Wingate, Gatwick chief executive, and his executive team will take a 20 per cent salary cut and waive any bonuses for the current financial year.

Gatwick has also terminated the employment of 200 staff employed on temporary fixed-term contracts and contractors.

Wingate said: “Gatwick is a resilient business, but the world has changed dramatically in recent weeks and we have been forced to take rapid, decisive action to ensure that the airport is in a strong position to recover from a significant fall in passenger numbers.

“We also very much regret having to make this difficult decision to reduce our staff numbers and I would like to thank everyone for the contribution they made to the business.

“Significantly reduced passenger numbers are likely to be sustained, at least in the short- to medium-term, and I need to prepare people for the news that other serious measures are likely.”


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Foreign & Commonwealth Office advises Brits against all non-essential foreign travel for 30 days

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office has advised British citizens against all non-essential international travel, initially for a period of 30 days.

The advice takes effect immediately.

The change in advice reflects the pace at which other countries are either closing their borders or implementing restrictive measures in response to the global coronavirus pandemic.

Often there is little or no notice when countries take these steps and restrictions are also being imposed in areas where no cases of coronavirus have yet been reported, the FCO said.

They are therefore very difficult to predict.

British people who decide that they still need to travel abroad should be fully aware of the increased risks of doing so.

That includes the risk that they may not be able to get home, if travel restrictions are put in place.

Anyone still considering travel to be realistic about the level of disruption they are willing and able to endure, and to make decisions in light of the unprecedented conditions.

Foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said: “UK travellers abroad now face widespread international border restrictions and lock downs in various countries.

“The speed and range of those measures across other countries is unprecedented.

“So, I have taken the decision to advise British nationals against all non-essential international travel.”

The FCO, however, said it was not currently advising Brits to immediately return to the UK if they are overseas.

However, they should keep in mind that flights may be cancelled at short notice or other travel restrictions may be put in place by foreign governments.

“Whether travel is essential or not is a personal decision and circumstances differ from person to person.

“It is for individuals themselves to make an informed decision based on the risks and FCO advice,” the FCO said in a statement.

UK inward and outward travel has already fallen by a significant amount since the outbreak of coronavirus.

Ryanair, Virgin Atlantic and easyJet have cut flights by 80 per cent this month and IAG (operator of British Airways) has decreased capacity by 75 per cent.


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Air New Zealand pauses ticket sales, cuts flights

Air New Zealand is further reducing capacity across its network as a result of the impact of Covid-19 on travel demand.

The airline placed itself into a trading halt today to allow it time to more fully assess the operational and financial impacts of global travel restrictions.

On its long-haul network, Air New Zealand will be reducing its capacity by 85 per cent over the coming months and will operate a minimal schedule to allow Kiwis to return home and to keep trade corridors with Asia and North America open.

Full details of this schedule will be advised in the coming days.

Among the network capacity reductions, the airline can advise it is suspending flights between Auckland and Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Buenos Aires, Vancouver, Tokyo Narita, Honolulu, Denpasar and Taipei from March 30th until the end of June.

The Tasman and Pacific Island network capacity will significantly reduce between April and June.

Details of these schedule changes will be announced later this week.

On the Domestic network, capacity will be reduced by around 30 per cent in April and May but no routes will be suspended.

Customers are advised that due to the unprecedented level of schedule changes they should not contact the airline unless they are due to fly within the next 48 hours or need immediate repatriation to New Zealand or their home country.

Air New Zealand chief executive, Greg Foran, said that while airlines face an unprecedented challenge, Air New Zealand is better placed than most to navigate its way through it.

“The resilience of our people is exceptional, and I am consistently amazed by their dedication and passion for our customers,” he said.

“We are a nimble airline with a lean cost base, strong balance sheet, good cash reserves, an outstanding brand and a team going above and beyond every day.

“We also have supportive partners.

“We are also in discussions with the government at this time.”

As a result of the downturn in travel Air New Zealand continues to review its cost base and will need to start the process of redundancies for permanent positions acknowledging the important role partnering with unions has in this process.

“We are now accepting that for the coming months at least Air New Zealand will be a smaller airline requiring fewer resources, including people.

“We have deployed a range of measures, such as leave without pay and asking those with excess leave to take it, but these only go so far.

“We are working on redeployment opportunities for some of our staff within the airline and also to support other organisations.”

Foran added the airline is working constructively with the heads of the four main unions representing more than 8,000 of its workforce to ensure the right outcome for all staff.


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