Brazil's largest airline goes after higher-paying customers with a new perk: No middle seat

Key Points
  • Gol is Brazil's largest airline.
  • The carrier is planning to launch nonstop flights to Miami and Orlando from Fortaleza and Brasilia in November.
  • Gol's CFO says the company could pursue a joint venture with its minority shareholder Delta.
Attendees stand in line in front of a Boeing Co. aircraft operated by GOL Airlines SA during the International Brazil Air Show (IBAS) at Rio Galeao International Airport in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Saturday, April 1, 2017. 
Dado Galdieri | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Brazil's largest airline is trying a new tack to get passengers to pay more expensive fares: No middle seats.

Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes is launching its first nonstop flights from Brazil to the U.S. in early November. The airline will use its new Boeing 737 Max 8 jets on the routes from Fortaleza in northerneastern Brazil and from the capital Brasilia to Miami and Orlando.

Gol operates an all-Boeing 737 fleet, like Southwest Airlines in the U.S., with three seats across on either side of the aisle. In order to make its premium economy section more attractive for travelers flying the longest routes around at nearly 8 hours, the airline will block off a middle seat using a table that stays on the seat for the duration of the flight, CFO Richard Lark told CNBC.

Fares vary. But a recent search for a roundtrip ticket in early November between Orlando and Fortaleza on Gol's website showed a premium economy seat was $636, more than double the cheapest coach class fare. Premium economy seats also feature 34 inches of legroom compared with 31 inches in regular economy.

Gol, like other carriers, is relying on customers to opt for higher fares to help cover the cost of fuel, which is up by more than a third in the last year. Carriers like United Airlines and Delta Air Lines said such premium products are catching on, so far.

Gol isn't ruling out further expansion in the U.S. but for now it is focusing on Florida. Brazil is the state's third-biggest source of foreign visitors after Canada and the United Kingdom.

The airline is, however, planning to pursue a joint venture with Delta, Lark said, but he did not give a time-frame. Delta has a 9.5 percent stake in Gol and the two have a code sharing agreement, which means they can sell each other's flights. Delta and Gol passengers can also earn and use frequent flyer miles on the other airline. A joint venture goes further than that as it can allow airlines to share profits or revenue and coordinate schedules.

A Delta spokeswoman said the company had no news about a potential joint venture with Gol.

Gol reports third-quarter earnings on Nov. 1 before the market opens.

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