By Tracy Rucinski
(Reuters) - U.S. budget carrier Frontier Airlines withdrew on Wednesday a "More Room" policy that would have given passengers the option of paying extra to keep the middle seat empty on flights after a backlash from politicians, according to a letter to lawmakers seen by Reuters.
Amid passenger concerns about the spread of the new coronavirus on airplanes, Frontier had announced on Monday a plan that, starting at $39 per passenger per flight, would ensure that the middle seat in their row would remain empty.
The move stoked the criticism of Peter DeFazio, chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, who called it "capitalizing on fear."
The move also faced criticism during a U.S. Senate hearing on Wednesday about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the aviation industry, which has seen air travel demand virtually vanish and forced a scramble by airlines to stem a daily cash burn.
In a March 6 letter to lawmakers, Frontier President and CEO Barry Biffle said: "We recognize the concerns raised that we are profiting from safety and this was never our intent. We simply wanted to provide our customers with an option for more space."
In the letter, Biffle said Frontier will rescind the seat price increase associated with the "More Room" product while making "best efforts to ensure as much social distancing as possible throughout the aircraft."
When flights were flying nearly empty, it was easy for passengers to spread out on airplanes. But as airlines have pulled down capacity to match lower demand, natural social distancing on planes has become more difficult.
Biffle said Frontier's load factors exceeded 50% this week and were trending higher on many flights over the coming weeks, prompting the "More Room" product to offer customers "more peace of mind."
Other U.S. airlines are blocking the sale of middle seats or putting a limit on overall seating capacity on the planes in an effort to address concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.
"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," Senator Amy Klobuchar said at Wednesday's hearing.
(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Stephen Coates)