AP – Frontier Airlines is dropping plans to charge passengers extra to sit next to an empty middle seat after congressional Democrats accused the airline of trying to profit from fear over the new coronavirus.
“We recognise the concerns raised that we are profiting from safety and this was never our intent,” Frontier CEO Barry Biffle said late on Wednesday in a letter to three lawmakers. “We simply wanted to provide our customers with an option for more space.”
Biffle said the airline will rescind the extra fee, which Frontier called More Room, and block the seats from being sold.
Earlier in the day, Democrats had railed against Frontier’s plan to charge passengers at least USD39 per flight to guarantee they would sit next to an empty middle seat. The offer was to begin with flights Friday and run through August 31.
The chairman of the House Transportation Committee called it “outrageous.” Peter DeFazio, D-Ore, said the Denver-based airline was using the need for social distancing during a pandemic “as an opportunity to make a buck … capitalising on fear and passengers’ well-founded concerns for their health and safety.”
Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn highlighted the fee during a congressional hearing on how COVID-19 is affecting the airline industry.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for some passengers who can’t afford to pay an additional charge for a seat to be less safe than other travelers,” Klobuchar said.
United States (US) air travel has dropped more than 90 per cent from a year ago because of the pandemic, and many flights are nearly empty. However, some flights — highlighted on social media — have been much more full, with many passengers not wearing face coverings.
That has led airlines to say they will block middle seats when possible to create space
From the outset, Biffle rejected the notion that his airline would be charging for social distancing.
“We are offering the option, and it is guaranteed. We don’t believe you need it — if everybody is wearing a facial covering – to be safe,” he told The Associated Press earlier this week. “It gives people more peace of mind if they want it.”
Biffle said ticket sales rose after previous announcements around safety, including a decision to require passengers to wear masks, and he expected the same reaction to the empty-seat offer.