Delta Air Lines announced Wednesday it will continue blocking middle seats on its flights until at least April 2021, the longest any U.S. airline has committed to give passengers more space onboard its planes.
That policy had been set to lapse in early January. But Delta has made its empty middle seats the cornerstone of its coronavirus playbook, using that extra space and enhanced cleaning procedures to try to convince travelers it’s safer to fly with Delta than its competitors. With COVID-19 cases skyrocketing in the U.S., it’s a timely maneuver.
The extension comes as several of those competitors have backed away from keeping middle seats empty. Southwest recently announced it would stop capping ticket sales on flights starting in December. JetBlue, meanwhile, is steadily filling up planes more and will stop blocking seats altogether in early January.
Executives at Delta have repeatedly suggested they would continue blocking middle seats well into next year. Now it’s official: Middle seats will remain empty through at least March 31, 2021. Delta trumpeted itself as “the only U.S. airline blocking seats” out that far.
Watch and see how Delta stacks up against American, Southwest, and United
“Several independent studies have validated the effectiveness of the Delta CareStandard’s multi-layered protection, like advanced ventilation and an extensive cleaning regimen, which together significantly reduce the risk of flight-related transmission,” Bill Lentsch, Delta’s chief customer experience officer, said in a statement. “However, we recognize some customers are still learning to live with this virus and desire extra space for their peace of mind. We are listening and will always take the appropriate steps to ensure our customers have complete confidence in their travel with us.”
Still, it’s likely only a matter of time before Delta fills up planes again. When Delta CEO Ed Bastian told investors this fall the airline would likely extend its policy, he also said the airline would start selling more of these seats “sometime in the first half of next year.”
“Obviously, it’s going to be conditioned on consumer sentiment and confidence in air travel,” Bastian explained.
The writing is on the wall: Empty middle seats won’t last forever. But with travel down for now, Delta is prioritizing making passengers feel safer, hoping that drives more flyers to Delta.
At the same time, Delta has also tweaked its seat-blocking policies so that planes may start to get a bit more full, while still keeping most middle seats empty.
Drilling into Delta’s Decision
Delta is one of just a handful of airlines currently blocking middle seats to give passengers more room onboard.
It’s a temporary measure at a time when concerns about safety are paramount – and it’s an easy move to make when few Americans are traveling. Others like Southwest have recently extended their seat-blocking policies through October.
But Delta has gone even farther by promising to keep middle seats open until at least April. It’s a sign that the airline doesn’t expect air travel to return to normal anytime soon. And until it does, giving passengers that peace of mind that they won’t have a stranger seated next to them.
Since the coronavirus pandemic upended travel, Delta has tried to position itself as the airline that cares most about safety. It’s betting that making passengers feel safer is the key to winning more flyers.
“This is a time when customers are not always trying to find … the cheapest price, but who’s going to get them there in the most reliable, safe manner,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said in a Milken Institute podcast interview explaining the decision to block seats.
And post-flight surveys show it’s effective, as Delta’s Net Promoter Scores – a key metric gauging customers’ satisfaction about their flight – have surged since the spring largely due to cleaning and social distancing onboard.
Changes to the Seat Caps
While Delta will continue blocking middle seats into the winter, the airline has tweaked some of its policies.
For starters, if you’re flying a regional jet with fewer than six seats in each row, you may still wind up sitting next to a stranger. Delta has promised only to block “select” seats on these planes.
Rather than capping ticket sales in economy and Comfort Plus at 60%, Delta has begun 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.
And as of Oct. 1, Delta started selling Delta One business class cabins on widebody jets to capacity. Domestic first class will still be capped at 50% through at least Jan. 6. Wednesday’s announcement did not address any additional changes for first class.
Delta has gone big and bold with blocking middle seats on its planes, and that makes sense. Delta has continually led the way among major U.S. airlines with customer-friendly moves. And it has tried to position itself as the airline that puts passenger safety above all else.
Extending the promise of extra space on flights into the spring while coronavirus fears mount is just the latest evidence of Delta’s strategy. Delta is a master at crafting a narrative, defining its brand, and drawing contrasts with its competitors.
But even on Delta, empty middle seats won’t last forever.