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Which U.S. Airlines Are Still Blocking Middle Seats?

By Michelle Baran

Oct 27, 2020

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Give us some space! These airlines will.

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Give us some space! These airlines will.

The number of U.S. carriers still guaranteeing some added space will soon be down to just three.

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As we head into the holiday travel season, the number of travelers getting back into the skies continues to climb—on October 18, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened 1.03 million travelers in a single day, the first time it surpassed 1 million since air travel went into a freefall in mid-March.

While that’s good news for the embattled airline industry, the growing number of passengers could be of concern for travelers who were hoping to have a little extra space between themselves and others to remain socially distant when flying.

If space is important to you, four U.S. airlines are still guaranteeing extra space between passengers. But at the start of December, there will be fewer.  

Southwest Airlines recently announced that it will resume selling all available seats for travel beginning on December 1, 2020, which means that as of December, Southwest flights can fly full. Known for its unconventional open-seating policy (fliers do not get assigned seats), Southwest has been limiting the number of seats sold on flights so that passengers could create some distance among them during the coronavirus pandemic.

While Southwest will soon be ending its capacity control policy, Alaska Airlines just extended its policy of blocking middle seats until January 6, 2021—the policy was originally scheduled to expire at the end of November as well.

Which U.S. airlines are still blocking middle seats (and until when)

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Alaska Airlines: Alaska is blocking middle seats and limiting the number of passengers on flights through January 6, 2021. In the case of families traveling together, middle seats can be used. The carrier states that if extra space cannot be guaranteed (for instance on a flight that is accommodating passengers from a canceled flight), fliers can speak with a customer service agent about options for getting onto a less crowded flight.

Delta Air Lines: Delta is blocking middle seat selection through January 6, 2021. For parties of one or two people, middle seats will be blocked entirely to others. For parties of three or more, middle seats will appear as available for booking so that families and travel companions can sit together.

Hawaiian Airlines: Hawaiian is blocking middle seats, too, and has not put an end date on its policy. The airline said that families and guests traveling together should speak with airport or gate agents.   

Southwest Airlines: Through November 30, Southwest is allowing for space between passengers. The carrier does not assign seats and has an open-seating policy, so customers flying together can sit together and those who aren’t can leave seats open between them with flights being limited in capacity until the end of November. After November 30, Southwest said it will make it easier for customers booked on fuller flights to rebook to another flight, if the customer chooses—but the airline did not specify exactly how it would be easier. (Southwest, like most other major carriers now, already does not charge a change fee.)

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What other U.S. airlines are doing to allow for some space

American Airlines: American says it is encouraging physical distancing in the gate area and while passengers board their aircraft.

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JetBlue: JetBlue is blocking the “vast majority” of middle seats on its larger planes, and “most” aisle seats on smaller aircraft through December 1, 2020. After that, the airline said it will limit the number of travelers on flights through the holiday season. But if travelers want to be absolutely certain there will be an empty seat next to them, the only way to do so will be to book it. Travelers will have the option to book an empty seat for the same price as the seat they are sitting in—so they can pay double the cost of their seat to ensure an empty one besides them.

United Airlines: While United does not guarantee that middle seats will be blocked, the carrier said if a regularly scheduled flight is expected to be fairly full, the airline will “do our best” to contact passengers approximately 24 hours prior to departure to decide whether they want to proceed with their travel plans or change the flight with no change fee. The carrier is also deplaning its aircraft five rows at a time in an effort to reduce crowding.

All of the major U.S. airlines—including Alaska, American, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, Southwest, and United—have mandatory mask policies in place with strict enforcement rules. New research has shed some light on how vigilant mask wearing may help prevent COVID-19 transmissions in-flight.

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“This practice of effectively keeping middle seats open bridged us from the early days of the pandemic, when we had little knowledge about the behavior of the virus, to now,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said in the company’s third quarter earnings release on October 22. “Today, aligned with science-based findings from trusted medical and aviation organizations, we will resume selling all available seats.”

>> Next: How Much Do Masks Really Protect You on Flights?

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