Is onboard social distancing possible or simply a PR tactic? This is perhaps the most controversial topic in airline industry COVID-19 policy.
While many airlines blocked seats between passengers immediately following the onset of COVID-19, most have have stopped this practice.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) now discourages airlines from blocking seats, as doing so would be devastating to airline profitability long term. IATA encourages airlines to require all passengers wear face coverings instead.
Yet while most airline industry experts acknowledge that true social distancing on an aircraft is not possible, an as-yet unpublished study by MIT Stern professor Arnold Barnett finds that the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission goes down by nearly 50% if there is an empty seat between customers on board.
The MIT research argues that the airlines continuing to block seats are protecting their customers’ health and placing passenger safety over profitability.
So which airlines are blocking seats?
According to Safe Travel Guide’s latest research, the following airlines communicate they are currently blocking middle seats on board:
Alaska Airlines – Alaska Airlines will block middle seats through October 31, 2020.
China Airlines – according to the Taiwan-based airline’s onboard safety policy, “starting from 1st May to 31st August, China Airlines initiates the plan of ‘safe seat selection’ for the premium economy class and the economy class on the CI / AE international flights. The principle of the ‘safe seat selection’ plan is to keep middle seats empty or to separate the seat selection by the aisle to avoid passengers sitting directly beside each other.”
Delta – Delta will block middle seats on its aircraft through September 30, 2020. The one exception is in Delta One international business class on Delta’s Airbus A350 with service to and from China. With high demand for flights to and from China and a lower number of flights being authorized to fly for the time being, Delta is selling these flights to capacity in its Delta One cabin only. The Delta One suite does have a full-height door at every seat and dividers between center suites, so passengers finding themselves on full flights will have more distance between them than they would in economy or Delta Premium Select. Delta notes that middle seats in its Premium Select and Main Cabin will continue to be blocked on flights to and from China.
Garuda Indonesia – according to Garuda Indonesia’s onboard health and safety policy, the airline makes efforts to “implement social distancing for our passengers on board by giving an empty seat between each passenger.”
Hawaiian Airlines – according to Hawaiian Airlines passenger safety policy, the carrier is “currently preventing the booking of middle seats on our aircraft to continue to provide more space for guests and flight attendants.” No end date is stated at the time of publishing.
JetBlue Airways – JetBlue will block middle seats through October 15, 2020. On smaller 2×2 aircraft, aisle seats are blocked.
Saudia – according to Saudia’s onboard health and safety policy, “the seat next to you will always remain unavailable for seating to ensure social distancing.” No timeframe is given for when this policy will end.
Southwest Airlines – Southwest will block seats through October 31, 2020. Note that on Southwest you select your own seat when you get on board the aircraft, but flights are sold sufficiently under-capacity so that all passengers can leave empty seats between one another.
Other than the exceptions explained above, airlines that continue to block seats are generally doing so through September 2020 and will reevaluate whether to continue during that month.
Airlines blocking seats are foregoing revenue for perceived passenger safety. They have received early positive press and social media.
Safe Travel Guide predicts a longer-term lift in the trust in these brands as well, given travelers cautiousness flying during the pandemic.
For the airlines that aren’t blocking seats, there are alternatives. These include:
1) Notifying passengers booked on full flights in advance that their aircraft will be full and allowing them to reschedule. United and American both use this practice.
2) Upgauging aircraft: in aviation lingo, this means swapping in a larger plane for a flight. Given demand for air travel remains low, airlines can do this with relative ease, compared to normal summer travel periods where the majority of aircraft are in fully utilized. United upgauged more than 4,000 flights in May and June 2020.
3) Reseating passengers just before boarding to maximize personal space. The gate staff at many airlines use this practice, but only if time and onboard flight capacity allow for it.
Your safest best continues to be choosing an airline that blocks middle seats. But if that’s not possible, choosing a carrier that adheres to one of the alternative practices above and booking a flight that’s not full is likely the next best option.
And if you’re flying international business or first class or in a domestic premium cabin on a widebody upgauged aircraft, some business and first class seats do offer more space between them.
Single window seats with direct aisle access are best — ideally no one in the row immediately in front of and behind you.
Check SeatGuru — planes with a 1×1 or 1x2x1 seat configuration maximize the distance around you. American’s A321 for transcontinental flights has a 1×1 first class cabin and many international business class cabins like Cathay Pacific’s A350 or SAS’s widebody business class like its Airbus A340.
Single window seats are preferred for anyone traveling alone, while paired seats in the center aisle may be preferable if you are traveling with someone from your own household. Otherwise, opt for the window.
While ensuring that sort of on board social distancing may be a stretch in any time of air travel, it’s more likely to happen now before air travel’s recovery begins.