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. Some airlines have committed to keeping seats empty on every flight into the fall – and even through 2020. With travel demand way down, it’s a fairly easy promise to make – and a way to win over more customers by providing that peace of mind.
But it’s far from universal. Most of the major U.S. airlines aren’t blocking seats and will instead sell flights to 100% capacity. And these days, it’s much more likely that your flight will be full – or nearly full.
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.
|Alaska Airlines||Yes||Nov. 30, 2020|
|Delta||Yes||Jan. 6, 2021|
|JetBlue||Yes*||Dec. 1, 2020|
|Southwest||Yes**||Nov. 30, 2020|
*JetBlue is blocking all middle seats through Oct. 15. Starting Oct. 16, they’ll sell no more than 70% of seats available on each flight.
**Southwest doesn’t assign seats but is capping ticket sales at roughly 66% on each flight
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.
Alaska Airlines has pledged to block seats on all its flights through at least Nov. 30, 2020. And that deadline has steadily moved later and later as the coronavirus pandemic drags on. Aisle seats on regional jets with just four or five seats in each row will also be blocked.
But there’s one big caveat to Alaska’s seat-blocking policy: The airline specifically warns passengers that “there can be occasions where extra space cannot be guaranteed,” such as when Alaska has to re-accommodate travelers from a canceled flight.
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 says it will keep middle seats empty until at least Jan. 6, 2021 – and even suggested it may extend that promise even farther.
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 will allow 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.
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.
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.
Hawaiian is among the airlines blocking middle seats – but unlike many others, it hasn’t put a date on when that policy may change. Aisle seats may also be blocked on regional jets with just four or five seats in each row.
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)
Through Oct. 15, JetBlue is blocking middle seats and aisle seats on each and every flight. Starting Oct. 16, JetBlue will begin selling no more than 70% of seats on each flight. That runs until Dec. 1, 2020.
Though it’s slim, that increases the likelihood that you might be seated next to a stranger. JetBlue says this new policy is meant to ensure families can easily select seats next to each other.
Other safety measures: JetBlue says it deep cleans each plane overnight, disinfecting high-touch areas like armrests and tray tables between every flight.
Southwest does things a bit differently, but you can still expect middle seats to go out empty.
Unlike its competitors, Southwest doesn’t assign seats – you pick the best of what’s available upon boarding. So Southwest is capping ticket sales on each flight at roughly 66%, making sure middle seats aren’t chosen. It’s doing this through at least Nov. 30, 2020.
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 is selling flights to capacity.
Instead, it 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 recent trip.
During my first flights in more than five months, 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.
Social distancing is key in the fight against coronavirus, but you’re not guaranteed an extra middle seat on every single airline these days. As always, you have to choose your airline wisely.