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.
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.
An Airline-by-Airline Guide
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||Oct. 31, 2020|
|Delta||Yes||Jan. 6, 2021|
|JetBlue||Yes||Oct. 15, 2020|
|Southwest||Yes*||Nov. 30, 2020|
*Southwest doesn’t assign seats but is capping ticket sales at roughly 66% on each flight
There are a few things worth highlighting here:
- Not every jet has middle seats, but airlines that are blocking seats will also block some aisle seats on smaller regional jets that have just four or five seats across.
- Families or parties traveling together can typically work with reservations agents or flight attendants to sit together.
- These dates continue to change as the coronavirus crisis drags on. Most recently, Delta extended its promise to keep middle seats empty all the way through Jan. 6, 2021. And Southwest extended its similar policy by another month, keeping middle seats empty through Nov. 30, 2020.
- American Airlines previously blocked about half of the middle seats on its flights, but began selling flights to capacity starting July 1.
- Rather than blocking seats, American and United is informing travelers when their upcoming flight is 70% full or more and offer to rebook them on a different flight.
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.
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.
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.
Lead photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines