The COVID-19 pandemic has changed nearly everything about travel, but just what you find onboard depends heavily on which airline you fly. For much of the pandemic, that was true if you wanted to ensure there was an empty middle seat next to you: Just a handful of airlines blocked seats.
But today, that's no longer the case. As of May 1, Delta stopped blocking middle seats, becoming the last major U.S. airline to return to normal.
So say goodbye to empty middle seats – it was nice while it lasted. These days, you should assume your next flight will be full.
Still, airlines have responded to the pandemic in different ways. So keep reading for a breakdown of how airlines have changed up the flying experience.
Here's a look at how some of the biggest U.S. airlines are approaching middle seats.
Which Airlines Block Middle Seats?
None. At least not anymore.
In the early stages of the pandemic, most of the nation's 11 largest airlines blocked middle seats or capped ticket sales to make sure flights weren't full. But one by one, they all dropped it and resumed selling flights to capacity.
*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 of 2020, 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 went farther than almost any airline when it came to blocking middle seats. But even on Delta, blocked middle seats won't last forever.
As of May 1, 2021, the airline resumed selling flights to capacity, filling middle seats once again. That doesn't mean your Delta flight will be 100% full – but it certainly could be.
Read more about how Delta is blocking middle seats
Other safety measures: Delta is cleaning and spraying down planes between each and every flight – though it will also stop electrostatic spraying between each flight soon, too. It has also switched up its boarding process, boarding planes from back to front in groups of four to five rows at a time. Just recently, Delta brought back a modified drink and snack service after months of only giving passengers baggies with water and snacks.
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. For months, United boarded planes from back to front but it has since resumed its normal boarding process. 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.
As other carriers started filling planes, many flyers went out of their way to book with Delta for the assurance of an empty seat next to them.
But this was never going to last forever. One by one, every airline is dropping these policies and emphasizing face masks and cleaning. Even the loudest proponents of blocking middle seats like Delta have admitted it's a temporary measure until travel demand returns. 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, they've all returned to normal.
So long, empty middle seats. It was nice while it lasted.