Frontier is rescinding plans to charge passengers extra to guarantee the middle seat next to them would be empty after the airline faced harsh criticism from lawmakers. Other major U.S. airlines announced over the last few weeks that they would block some or all middle seats free of charge to encourage social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We recognize the concerns raised that we are profiting from safety and this was never our intent," Frontier CEO Barry Biffle said in a letter to lawmakers. "We simply wanted to provide our customers with an option for more space."
The airline said it made the decision after noticing this week it was exceeding 50% systemwide load factors and "trending higher on many flights over the coming weeks."
"Social distancing becomes more problematic as flights fill up and, therefore, we chose to require face masks for everyone," Biffle said. "While we believe this ensures safety, we knew some customers wanted more peace of mind and therefore we introduced the More Room product that guaranteed an empty middle seat."
Frontier Airlines announced Monday that passengers traveling from May 8 through Aug. 31 could select the "More Room" seat option -- starting at $39 -- which would ensure there would be an empty middle seat next to them.
On Wednesday, Democratic lawmakers Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., and Rep. Jesús García, D-Ill., sent a letter to Biffle calling the airline's middle seat guarantee policy "outrageous given the spread of the coronavirus" insisting that "the flying public should not be charged extra to stay healthy on flights."
They urged the airline to "immediately reconsider" its "misguided policy."
"While your competitors such as Delta Airlines have rightfully decided to block off middle seats without a charge to passengers, Frontier Airlines has made the bewildering decision to punish the very customers it needs most," the lawmakers wrote.
All major U.S. airlines have slashed flight schedules considerably in response to the record-low demand for air travel. The number of passengers at U.S. airports is down more than 93% compared to last year, according to the Transportation Security Administration. The International Air Transport Association has warned that the global aviation industry could take a hit of more than $300 billion due to COVID-19.
Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said he found it "outrageous" that Frontier saw the "imperative for social distancing as an opportunity to make a buck."
"Frontier's decision to charge passengers to keep middle seats empty is capitalizing on fear and passengers' well-founded concerns for their health and safety," DeFazio said.
Frontier's CEO pushed back against the notion on Monday that the airline was putting a price on safety and said he believed the face covering requirement and additional cleaning measures they implemented are sufficient in addressing passengers COVID-19 related concerns.
"We don't believe this is what you need to be safe but it's one more thing that we can do to put people's minds at ease," Biffle said on CNBC on Monday.
The International Air Transport Association on Tuesday said it supports mandatory face coverings for passengers and crew, but that it does not support mandating social distancing measures that would leave middle seats empty.
"Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low," IATA said in a release. "Mask-wearing by passengers and crew will reduce the already low risk, while avoiding the dramatic cost increases to air travel that onboard social distancing measures would bring."