When I wrote yesterday about Frontier Airlines’ new plan to sell “More Room” seats, where the passenger would be assured of an empty seat next to them, suffice it to say that I was unimpressed with their “generosity.” As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one. Complaints were coming in from all over the place, including from members of Congress. Faced with a flurry of accusations, the airline turned around within 24 hours and said they would no longer be making the offer and suggested that they’re working on ways to make air travel safer in the pandemic era without charging travelers more for the privilege not being quite so exposed to the potentially deadly disease. (Associated Press)

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 recognize the concerns raised that we are profiting from safety and this was never our intent,” Frontier CEO Barry Biffle said late 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.

Their CEO is backpedaling faster than an Olympic bicyclist, but his explanation is completely at odds with the original statements put out by the company. Biffle is now trying to claim that they simply wanted to offer “an option for more space.” But the original offer was clearly framed in the context of the novel coronavirus, saying that they were offering “extra peace of mind or simply additional comfort.”

This is the same Barry Biffle who only one day earlier had said, “The bottom line is you don’t have to have anything more than that to be safe on Frontier.” And the announcement was released along with their new guidelines for wearing facemasks and providing medical information. The word “safe” is not synonymous with “comfort.”

I should also take this opportunity to shower some rare praise on a couple of congressional Democrats, specifically Peter DeFazio who chairs the House Transportation Committee and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. DeFazio blasted Frontier, calling this scheme an “opportunity to make a buck … capitalizing on fear and passengers’ well-founded concerns for their health and safety.”

Klobuchar was similarly incensed, saying, “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.

As I pointed out yesterday, that’s really not an accurate assessment because the width of one seat isn’t enough space to constitute social distancing. But since that was clearly what the airline was trying to imply with their announcement, her objections are still valid. And not for nothing, but it would have been nice to see some of the Republicans chiming in on this.

So what does Frontier plan to do now? They won’t be charging for the empty middle seats, but they will “try” to seat passengers that way at no additional cost. Given that many flights are far from full these days, they should have been doing that already, while allowing family groups the option of sitting together. But what happens when they have a full flight? It sounds like all of these heartfelt concerns will just go out the window and the passengers will be packed in like sardines as usual. If they were truly concerned, they should add a second flight and split the travelers up between them.