Ronn TorossianRonn Torossian

It was inevitable that, at some point, returning to full flights would become a reality. As the airline industry looks for ways to dig itself out of the massive hole left by COVID-19, it appears this is a step many airlines are now ready to make.

Given consumers are currently less than enthusiastic about the notion of full flights, however, how are major U.S. airlines responding in order to encourage travelers to book those flights … especially in the middle seat?

American Airlines, the world’s largest airline, opted for a subtle, indirect approach with this announcement: “Customers may notice that flights are booked to capacity starting July 1…”

Conversely, American’s competitor, United, said it has been willing to “sell every possible seat” even as travel demand plummeted after the pandemic landed in America. However, one message both major carriers agreed on was a policy of communicating with passengers when more than 70 percent of the seats on a flight were booked. This message was intended to offer consumers the option of switching to a less-crowded flight if they’re concerned about the potential risk of contracting the virus.

Now, though, most airlines have reached the point where they need to entice travelers in larger numbers. Otherwise, the biggest brands—and the industry as a whole—will face bleak fall and winter travel seasons. According to media reports, a recent survey of people passing through TSA checkpoints compared to the same time last year was about one-quarter. These are worrying numbers during what’s traditionally a peak summer travel period for airlines.

However, the same survey noted that the number of airline passengers is steadily rising, up dramatically since the lowest point in April. That said, there are still fewer planes in the air and that means any increase in the number of passengers means fewer empty seats between passengers who may still be concerned about the pandemic.

Hoping to appeal to fliers who are still uneasy, airlines including JetBlue have said they plan to keep the middle seat open a while longer. JetBlue committed to the end of July, while larger airlines—like Southwest and Delta—have committed to keeping that seat empty at least through September. That could give these airlines a distinct public relations advantage, if they choose to leverage that selling point.

CNN reported that Delta CEO Ed Bastian said the policy to keep the seat open would remain until fall, and that consumer demand could potentially extend that “as the business starts to return, as demand starts to grow, and if people have more confidence in their travel experience, we will decide later in this year when we start to ease up on (the restricted number of passengers).”

Other airlines are pushing messages that include information regarding enhanced cleaning practices and making masks compulsory. However, with many other businesses across various industries touting the same policies, these enhancements are starting to read less like benefits and more like business as usual. Over the next few months, we’ll see which narratives influence consumer confidence most.


Ronn Torossian is CEO of 5WPR, a leading PR agency.