In an industry that considers innovations like standing seats and pay-per-use toilets legitimate ways to squeeze more money out of customers, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility that the next step in budget airline innovation would come for the back of your seat.
Thankfully, that’s not the case. At least, not yet.
But when EasyJet flyer Matthew Harris spotted a backless seat on a flight from Luton, England to Geneva, Switzerland on Tuesday, he was understandably confused. Harris’ partner took a photo of a woman sitting on what looks like a normal airline seat, except without a back. And with that, the tweet took off.
The company said even though these seats were “inoperative” and that no passengers were permitted to fly while sitting in the seats, the “flight can depart.” The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) said in a statement that without a backrest, the seat “cannot meet” its certification requirements.
“Safety is our highest priority, and EasyJet operates its fleet of aircraft in strict compliance with all safety guidelines,” the British airline said in an emailed statement to Adweek.
On Twitter, the airline’s account asked Harris to delete the photo and DM the company for more information. When asked to explain this request, EasyJet said it was looking into the tweet and admitted that the request “is not in line with our usual approach.”
“One has to wonder how safe the rest of the plane was,” Harris tweeted about four hours after the initial tweet. He also clarified that the woman in the photo was moved to a spare seat once the flight was fully boarded.
According to the airline, flights are allowed to depart as long backless seats remain unoccupied, and the seats in the photo are expected to be repaired tonight.
The stigma of the budget airline
Benét J. Wilson, an aviation journalist and consultant who’s been flying for more than 40 years, had never seen anything like the backless chair, but she wasn’t surprised by the online reaction and can see how consumers would think it was real.
“Of course, people could think, ‘Oh yeah, I can pay less money if I can sit in a seat with no back,'” Wilson said. With budget airlines, “you control the price, but your experience is what you make of it.”
As the second-largest European budget airline behind Ireland’s Ryanair, EasyJet is the largest airline operating out of the U.K., advertising flights from London to Naples for as little as $38. In the first half of 2019, EasyJet’s total revenue increased by 7.3% to $2.85 billion, flying more than 41 million customers.
Budget airlines like EasyJet, and Southwest and Spirit in the U.S., are able to offer such low fares by skimping on everything else. There are fees for checked bags, and even carry-ons, as well as being able to choose your own seat. Meals, if offered, are à la carte, and there isn’t always in-flight entertainment. Tweets about budget airlines—like the one about the bat that got loose on a Spirit plane last week—go viral. All of which makes the idea of a backless seat more believable.
“Budget airlines have conditioned people to understand that there’s going to be a tight seat pitch, your seats are not going to recline, you might not get a window shade,” Wilson said. “They are getting as many people in as humanly possible.”
Budget airlines also typically only fly one kind of plane to save costs on training and repair. Southwest famously only flies Boeing 737s while EasyJet relies on a fleet of Airbus A320s. While regulatory agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration and EASA ensure budget airlines are just as safe as full-service airlines, there’s still a stigma.
Fortunately for flyers, this wasn’t a glimpse into the future of affordable travel—just a seat in need of repair.