Coronavirus has changed nearly everything about travel, but just what you find onboard depends heavily on which airline you fly. And that’s especially true if you want to ensure you’re not rubbing shoulders with a stranger, as not all airlines block middle seats.
Middle seats have become a hot topic in travel today. And while a handful of airlines committed to blocking middle seats as the pandemic first disrupted travel, the number of carriers doing so has dwindled.
Most recently, airlines like JetBlue, Alaska, and Southwest have stopped blocking middle seats. But Delta just announced it will keep middle seats open through at least March 30, 2021 – longer than any other U.S. airline.
Here’s a look at how some of the biggest U.S. airlines are approaching middle seats, and which ones you’ll want to fly if you want the guarantee of extra space.
Which Airlines Block Middle Seats?
Among 11 of the nation’s largest airlines, less than half are currently blocking seats or capping ticket sales to make sure flights don’t go out full.
|Delta||Yes||March 30, 2021|
*Alaska Airlines is only blocking middle seats in its extra-legroom economy seating section called “Premium Class,” through May 31.
Still, there are differences between each airline worth pointing out – even among those pledging to block middle seats. So let’s dive a bit deeper and see what each airline is doing.
After committing to blocking middle seats more than almost any other airline, things are largely back to normal onboard Alaska Airlines. The airline began selling flights to capacity as of Jan. 7, 2021.
There’s one small exception: Alaska is still blocking middle seats in its “Premium Class” cabin, extra-legroom seats at the front of the economy cabin. The airline says it will continue doing so through at least May 31, 2021.
Other safety measures: Alaska Airlines is also boarding planes from back-to-front to limit passengers contact during the boarding process. Alaska says it uses electrostatic spraying technology to deep clean planes, and cleaning crews move through high-traffic areas of the plane between each flight with disinfectant.
Like most budget airlines, Allegiant isn’t blocking any seats from sale.
Instead, the airline encourages travelers not to select a middle seat unless if they’re part of a group traveling together. Flight attendants will work with passengers to spread out across the cabin if extra seats are available. And Allegiant also says travelers “can request to be notified” if a flight is more than 65% full
Other safety measures: Allegiant was the last of the major U.S. airlines to require all passengers and crew to wear face masks. Allegiant isn’t cleaning planes between each flight, but customers can request a disinfectant cleaning wipe on board.
After blocking middle seats in the early summer, American ditched that approach and began selling flights to capacity starting July 1, 2020.
That means your odds of getting stuck next to a stranger flying American are higher than some of its competitors. Instead of blocking seats, American will notify passengers when an upcoming flight is looking full – allowing them to change to a flight with more open flights for free if one is available.
Other safety measures: American hasn’t changed up its boarding process much at all: The airline still boards the plane as normal, with nine distinct boarding groups (and basic economy at the rear). But American has stepped up its cleaning, disinfecting high-touch areas between every flight with disinfectant. And it’s using a new surface protection coating that kills viruses called SurfaceWise.
Delta Air Lines
Delta has gone farther than almost any airline when it comes to blocking middle seats. The airline announced yet another extension, saying it will keep middle seats empty through at least March 30, 2021. And Delta isn’t ruling out pushing that out even further into the spring.
But the airline has made some changes that will allow it to sell more tickets on each flight while still honoring the promise that you won’t be seated next to a stranger.
Rather than capping ticket sales in economy and Comfort Plus at 60%, Delta will begin selling 75% of seats. That allows families to more easily occupy a whole row together, putting more people on each flight while still honoring the commitment to keep middle seats open between strangers. Plus, flights on smaller regional jets with just four or five seats in each row will only block one aisle of seating – so you may wind up sitting next to a stranger.
As of Oct. 1, Delta began selling Delta One business class cabins on widebody jets to capacity. Domestic first class will still be capped at 50% through at least October.
Read more about how Delta is blocking middle seats
Other safety measures: Delta is cleaning planes between each and every flight. It has also switched up its boarding process, boarding planes from back to front in groups of four to five rows at a time. And it has suspended normal in-flight service, handing out bags with water, snacks, and cleaning supplies instead.
Frontier is blocking some middle seats, but only in the more expensive “stretch seating” section at the front of the plane. Throughout the rest of the cabin, your Frontier flight may fill up.
Other safety features: Believe it or not, Frontier is the only major U.S. airline testing flyers’ temperatures before every flight. Frontier has also started boarding planes from back to front. The airline cleans high-traffic areas of the plane between each flight, and sends jets for deep-cleaning each night.
After blocking middle seats on most flights – and not saying when it might stop that practice – Hawaiian began filling middle seats once again on Dec. 15, 2020.
Other safety measures: All economy passengers will board Hawaiian flights from back to front to limit passenger contact. All flights between Hawaii and the mainland U.S. (or international destinations) are deep-cleaned between each flight. Inter-island flights are cleaned after every stop into Honolulu (HNL)
JetBlue has slowly backed away from blocking middle seats. And as of Jan. 8, it no longer blocks seats at all.
After an initial promise to block all middle seats onboard, JetBlue steadily filled up planes more and more through the fall and into the winter. First, it sold 70% of seats on board. Then it moved to fill 85% of seats.
But now, those days are gone. JetBlue has stopped blocking seats altogether.
Other safety measures: JetBlue says it deep cleans each plane overnight, disinfecting high-touch areas like armrests and tray tables between every flight.
Southwest was one of the few major U.S. airlines guaranteeing empty seats on the plane. Not anymore.
In early Novemer, the airline announced it would start selling flights to capacity beginning Dec. 1, 2020.
Unlike its competitors, Southwest doesn’t assign seats – you pick the best of what’s available upon boarding. So Southwest merely capped ticket sales on each flight at roughly 66%, making sure middle seats weren’t chosen. But now that practice is gone.
Other safety measures: Southwest recently scaled back on its cleaning, with USA Today reporting the airline would stop cleaning armrests and seat belts between each flight to save time. But it deep-cleans aircraft nightly, and still scrubs tray tables and lavatories between every flight. Southwest also changed its boarding process – it boards the plane in groups of just 10 passengers at a time.
Spirit is not blocking seats from sale on any flights, but you may be prevented from selecting a middle seat until a flight fills up.
Other safety measures: Spirit says it cleans planes between each flights with a new, stronger disinfectant. Yet the boarding process remains unchanged; Spirit continues selling snacks, drinks, and alcohol on board; and in some cases flight crews are still leading passengers in a mid-flight yoga routine.
Sun Country is not blocking seats from sale, but CEO Jude Bricker has said flight attendants will work with passengers onboard to spread out when extra seats are available. Depending on your flight, that may not be an option.
Other safety measures: While Sun Country isn’t cleaning its planes between each and every flight, the airline says it has boosted its cleaning procedures to any plane that’s on the ground for two or more hours – as well as overnight. The airline has suspended all snack and drink service onboard.
United was the first big U.S. carrier to give up on blocking middle seats. United has been selling flights to capacity since early 2020.
Instead, United will simply alert travelers if their upcoming flight is 70% full or more. In those cases, the airline will offer a free change to a flight with fewer seats occupied.
Other safety measures: United has stepped up its cleaning procedures, with electrostatic spraying between each flight. United has also overhauled its boarding and deplaning processes. Travelers board United flights from back to front, and United announces row-by-row during the deplaning process so that travelers don’t bunch up while getting off the plane.
Do Empty Middle Seats Really Matter?
Let’s be clear: An empty middle seat does not give you the six feet of social distancing public health officials say is critical for battling coronavirus. It’s more like 18 to 20 inches between you and your nearest neighbor.
But any additional distance is better than none. And while it’s far from conclusive, at least one study suggests that keeping middle seats empty can help prevent some coronavirus transmission.
More to the point: An empty middle seat can make you feel safer. I know it did for me during a trip this summer.
During my first flights in more than five months over the summer of 2020, I looked at the empty seats next to me and shuddered at the thought of a stranger sitting there. For the foreseeable future, I simply wouldn’t be comfortable flying with someone right next to me. And I imagine the same is true for many travelers out there.
But don’t celebrate the death of the dreaded middle seat just yet. Even the airlines that are blocking middle seats admit it’s a temporary measure until travel demand returns. And even now, it’s clear that airlines are placing much more emphasis on passengers wearing face masks.
For months, many of the nation’s largest airlines blocked middle seats on their flights. But as the pandemic has progressed and airlines have felt the pressure to sell more tickets and fill up planes, all but one have backed away from blocking seats.