Delta Air Lines has gone farther than any airline when it comes to blocking seats on planes to give passengers more space. The airline has made it 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 travel still slumping, the airline has extended that policy several times. Delta currently promises to block middle seats until at least Jan. 6, 2021. But when will Delta start selling middle seats again?
On Tuesday, CEO Ed Bastian told investors it was possible the airline could extend that promise once again beyond early January. But 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.
In short, it’s only a matter of time before Delta reverts to the standard of selling as many seats as they can. But with travel down for now, Delta is prioritizing making passengers feel safer.
“Medical experts, including our own partners at Emory Healthcare, agree – more distance on board makes a difference,” Bill Lentsch, Delta’s chief customer experience officer, said in a statement when the airline last extended its policy. “We believe that taking care of our customers and employees and restoring confidence in the safety of air travel is more important right now than filling up every seat on a plane.”
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 early January. 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.
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.
And starting Oct. 1, Delta will begin 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.
But 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.
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.
But even on Delta, empty middle seats won’t last forever.