Lawmakers are slamming Frontier Airlines after it tried to market CDC-recommended social distancing as an add-on perk

FILE PHOTO: A Frontier Airlines Airbus A320neo plane departs from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago Reuters

Just one day after announcing that passengers could pay for an empty middle seat, Frontier Airlines retracted that plan following withering criticism from customers and lawmakers.

While several airlines, including American and Delta, have said that they are blocking passengers from choosing middle seats in order to promote social distancing, the airlines will still assign those seats if it has enough passengers on a given flight.

On Tuesday, Frontier announced that it would allow passengers to pay an extra fee, starting at $US39, to keep the middle seat next to them open.

While announcing the new program, the airline stressed that mandatory use of face masks, health screening forms, and frequent disinfecting of planes was sufficient to protect passengers.

“While we believe the best measure to keep everyone healthy is to require face coverings, for those who want an empty seat next to them for extra peace of mind or simply additional comfort, we are now offering ‘More Room,'” CEO Barry Biffle said in a press release.

However, lawmakers quickly accused the airline of profiteering, arguing that if blocked middle seats contributed to passenger safety, the airline should standardize the practice, rather than upselling.

“I find it outrageous that an airline sees the imperative for social distancing as an opportunity to make a buck,” Rep. Peter DeFazio, chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said in a statement. “Frontier’s decision to charge passengers to keep middle seats empty is capitalising on fear and passengers’ well-founded concerns for their health and safety.”

“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 travellers,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Biffle told the Journal earlier this week that while the airline would offer the option to give customers peace of mind, it did not believe that blocking middle seats was necessary.

Frontier retracted the policy late Wednesday, a spokesperson confirmed to Business Insider.

“We recognise the concerns raised that we are profiting from safety and this was never our intent,” Biffle wrote in a response to lawmakers, according to Politico. “We simply wanted to provide our customers with an option for more space.”

A long-term problem brewing for airlines

As airlines struggle to convince passengers that it is safe to fly during the era of social distancing, the option of blocking or removing seats has been raised by executives, analysts, and passengers.

Options would include fees for passengers to reserve an empty seat next to them, or simply blocking all middle seats. For the latter to be economic, airlines would need to raise fares on the remaining seats to make up for the blocked ticket sales.

Last month, International Air Transport Association director Alexandre de Juniac said that if social distancing is imposed on aeroplanes for the foreseeable future, it would lead to price increases of as much as 50% in order for airlines to make profits on flights.

“So it means that if social distancing is imposed, cheap travel is over,” he said.