Why Is the Middle Seat So Valuable On AirTran?

AirTran Airways provides multi-tiered pricing for advance reservation of seating in its coach class. AirTran differentiates its pricing by positioning vertically in the plane, but not horizontally. That is, for some reason, AirTran charges the same price for a middle seat in the same row as an aisle and middle seat. AirTran does not charge passengers when the airline assigns the seating.

Exit row seats are the most expensive at $20 per reservation. Exit row seating provides extra leg room. Zone 1 seats are located toward the front of the coach section and offer priority boarding privileges. The first rows in this section cost $15 while the remaining rows in Zone 1 cost $13. All remaining coach seats cost $6 to reserve in advance.

Most travelers consider the middle seat of plane the equivalent of hell in the sky. However, on AirTran middle seats actually get reserved BEFORE the supply of aisle and window seats run dry! I would expect such behavior only if middle seats actually cost (a lot?) less to reserve than aisle and window seats AND passengers are charged even when the airline assigns the seat.

The graphic below shows a sample grid for selecting a seat on an AirTran flight. The text bubble provides basic information about any seat of interest. Note that numerous middle seats are reserved even though windows and aisle seats are available on either side. That is, these seats are most likely reserved by solo travelers who are free to choose any seat in coach. (It is possible that AirTran has blocked these seats, but I am at a loss to provide a rational explanation for such a policy).

Grid for reserving a seat on a typical AirTran flight
Grid for reserving a seat on a typical AirTran flight

Source: AirTran
(Click for a larger view)

I have not been able to figure out why a solo passenger would pay $6 to reserve a middle seat when it is flanked by available aisle and window seats for the same price. However, I do know that under such conditions a person who prefers aisle and window seats to middle seats should consider saving money and taking his/her chances with the random assignment process.

For example, in the case above, there are only five middle seats available outside of Zone 1 and the exit row. There are 23 aisle and window seats available (the text bubble covers a few of them). Thus, assuming a purely random process and assuming that AirTran sells no more tickets, a passenger has an 82% chance of getting the (presumed) higher quality seating for free. Otherwise, a passenger could pay $6 to avoid the 18% chance of getting the dreaded middle seat. The “expected value” of this choice is a mere $1.08, well below the $6 the airline charges. (Conceptually, if you are unlucky enough to draw the middle seat, you could pay $6 to switch to an aisle or window). Personally, I am willing to take my chances with the random assignment with these odds and costs!

Only passengers who are trying to keep a party seated together should be willing to pay a non-zero price for the middle seat. If there are enough people who think like I do, AirTran will increase revenues in the above situation by reducing the price of the seats in relative over-supply, in this case, the window and aisle seats. Otherwise, most passengers reviewing their options will choose to wait what for a seat assignment at the time of boarding.

Having said all that, my choice might change for a red-eye flight or after flying four times in a row in a middle seat!

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