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.
Now that the 2020 holiday season is over, some airlines are changing their seat-blocking policies in January.
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while most airline industry experts acknowledge that true social distancing on an aircraft is not possible, an as-yet unpublished study by MIT Stern professor Arnold Barnett finds that the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission goes down by nearly 50% if there is an empty seat between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? And which will continue to do so into 2021?
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 January 6, 2021. Alaska communicates its gate agents may reassign seats to maximize space and help families sit together. Families sitting together may be assigned middle seats.
China Airlines – Taiwan-based China Airlines blocked seats until October 31, 2020, but has since removed the language about “safe seat selection” from its web site. China Airlines’ onboard safety policy formerly stated, “starting from 1st May to 31st October, 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.”
However, it appears China Airlines has stopped this practice given its web site update and the airline industry’s trend towards selling all seats on board.
Delta – Delta will block middle seats on its aircraft through March 30, 2021. Communicating its updated policy on November 18, Delta is the only US airline to commit to blocking seats until Spring 2021. The airline has received positive feedback and passenger goodwill for its continued commitment. In domestic first class, where seats are arranged in a 2×2 configuration, adjacent seats are blocked. On regional 2×2 aircraft, select aisle seats are blocked.
Passengers traveling together in parties of 2 may elect to sit next to each other in Delta’s domestic first class or Delta One cabins.
Notably, 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 stopped blocking seats on board on December 15, 2020. Instead it has shifted its policy to pre-travel Covid-19 tests that meet the state of Hawaii’s travel requirements. Hawaiian Airlines communicates that its gate agents strive to seat guests traveling in the same party together. The airline encourages any passengers who wish to sit together to notify its gate agents.
JetBlue Airways – JetBlue will block middle seats through December 1, 2020, selling 70% of available seats. On smaller 2×2 aircraft, aisle seats are blocked. For passengers traveling together, it allocates some rows on its larger aircraft with 3 seats, and some rows on its smaller aircraft with 2 seats.
From December 2, 2020 through January 7, 2021, JetBlue will limit capacity on its flights to 85% but will no longer block seats and communicates that you likely will be seated next to another passenger. A JetBlue spokesperson said the airline is revising its seat blocking policy to accommodate families traveling together over the holidays.
From January 8, 2021 onwards, JetBlue will sell all available seats and will no longer limit capacity or block any seat on board.
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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 – While Southwest has blocked middle seats on its flights since early in the pandemic, the airline stops this practice after November 30, 2020,
In Southwest’s October 22 earnings report, the airline announced it will change its seat blocking policy and begin selling full flights for travel beginning December 1, 2020. This is likely so that Southwest can fill its planes through the holiday travel season.
Note that on Southwest you select your own seat when you get on board the aircraft. So for the few remaining days in November, flights are sold sufficiently under-capacity so that all passengers can leave empty middle seats between one another. Southwest says that passengers traveling together can sit together if they wish.
Other than the exceptions explained above, airlines that continue to block seats are generally doing so through December 2020 or January 2021 and will reevaluate whether to continue given the state of air travel and public health considerations.
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 travel periods where the majority of aircraft are 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 an airline 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 with 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, as do many international business class cabins like Cathay Pacific’s A350 or SAS’s widebody business class on 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 — and until air travel’s full recovery begins.