Skift Take

More and more airlines are taking back the middle seat and while it makes good business sense, do they risk losing customers who might interpret it as greed or an affront to their health?

In an effort to give customers peace of mind, Delta Air Lines is extending blocking middle seats in coach, blocking aisle seats on planes without middle seats, and blocking adjacent seats in first class through the end of April, the airline announced this week.

The announcement, which follows a dismal fourth quarter and comes despite losing the added revenue those empty seats provide, sets Atlanta-based Delta as the only U.S airline still offering passengers inflight social distancing options nearly a year after the pandemic decimated air travel as we knew it.

What does Delta get out of this strategy?

“We want our customers to have complete confidence when traveling with Delta, and they continue to tell us that more space provides more peace of mind,” said Bill Lentsch, Delta’s chief customer experience officer. “We’ll continue to reassess seat blocking in relation to case transmission and vaccination rates, while bringing back products and services in ways that instill trust in the health and safety of everyone on board — that will always be Delta’s priority.”

Still, Delta is sacrificing a significant amount of potential revenue by blocking middle seats. Doing so amounts to selling only two-thirds of available economy-class seats, which may not be an issue now, as fewer people are flying than in 2019, but it could prove a disadvantage as travel demand ramps back up.

On Twitter, the move to continue blocking seats was celebrated.

Ella b. said “Kudos to Delta airlines for being the only airline that still leaves the middle seat empty.” In another tweet, Kerry Moser said Delta is the only airline she will fly, while Twitter user Lydia, replied she’s a weekly flyer and only on Delta because of their middle seat blocking to a tweet asking how people felt about getting on planes right now.

With the exception of Alaska Airlines, which is blocking middle seats in its premium cabin, every other U.S. airline has opted to stop blocking middle seats and limiting capacity, citing various studies from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Airlines for America (A4A)  sponsored a Harvard study that showed a minute possibility for passengers and crews of contracting coronavirus inflight with increased safety measures.

Saying that many of its premium class benefits have been diluted by limited food and beverage offerings, Alaska said it has launched a pilot program  leaving the middle seat open in premium class without any additional charge, in response to passengers saying they enjoy the extra leg and elbow room while traveling.

But when it comes to the middle seats in the main cabin, Seattle-based Alaska joins other airlines in basing their decisions on trusting the scientific results of both the Defense Department and Harvard studies.

“The studies all concluded that fliers who wear masks have a  near-zero (0.003%) chance of contracting Covid-19 onboard an aircraft, in part because of our sophisticated onboard  HEPA-filtration, even when every seat is occupied on a plane,” an Alaska Airlines spokesperson said.

In a letter to employees, JetBlue President Joanna Geraghty said the Defense Department found cabin air to be safer than that in their own homes.

Dallas-based American Airlines said it started informing passengers last summer  flights might be booked to capacity starting last July, but the airline also gives customers flexibility in changing to other flights that aren’t as booked or flying standby without incurring change fees.

United also stopped blocking middle seats and is notifying passengers if their flights are expected to be full, allowing them to rebook or get a travel credit. “When presented with all of the information, the overwhelming majority of our customers choose to keep their travel plans the same,” a United spokesperson said.

In a tweet asking American friends for flying precaution advice, Twitter user Dr. Joel C. Miller who flew to from Australia to the U.S. on Tuesday, was told to prepare mentally for the terrifying possibility of a packed flight, showing that despite airline assurances that flying without the middle seat blocked is safe, the close proximity to others is paramount on some passengers minds. Miller replied he was more worried about the connection than the long haul flight and chose Delta because of its blocked middle seats.   

It’s more critical than ever to break the myth that consumers need a middle seat to be safe when they fly. That’s not true, an Alaska spokesperson said.

Flying is safer than going to your local Home Depot with the use of masks on the plane and hospital grade filtration cleaning the cabin air, said Dr. Richard Dockins, a board certified physician and tropical medicine expert.

Dockins said people run more risks throughout the terminal than they do on a plane, but still advises people to get a vaccination if possible and then go do everything you can to try and minimize your personal risk, including assessing their personal risks of traveling based on their health checking with a doctor prior to traveling.

“Sharing your air with somebody is a real challenge that we’ve got,” he said. “You can fly safely on a plane and the actual on aircraft part is probably less dangerous or less risky than the airport part…getting there, checking in, go in and sit in the bar before you get on your aircraft, whatever else you’re doing in the airport interacting with people.”

“It’s all about time and distance, and how much interaction you have with sitting quietly on a plane and your face cover your three hours is probably relatively low risk,” he said.

For its part, Southwest said the blocking of middle seats was introduced at a time when little was known about the behavior of the Covid-19 virus and to bring comfort to returning travelers.

“We now have a chorus of scientific studies that point to aircraft cabins as an environment where transmission of the virus is statistically improbable for two primary reasons: the uniform usage of masks; and sophisticated air systems that introduce fresh air throughout a flight with a mix of HEPA-filtered air that replenishes the entire volume of cabin air every two to three minutes,” said a Southwest spokesperson.

The safety and wellbeing of passengers and employees is the top priority of U.S. airlines. Since the onset of this crisis, U.S. airlines have relied on science to help guide decisions as they continuously reevaluate and update their processes, procedures and protocols, said A4A spokesperson Katherine Estep.

“In addition to implementing multiple layers of measures to mitigate the risk of transmission onboard, A4A member airlines proactively implemented pre-departure health-acknowledgement forms to encourage passengers to evaluate their own health prior to travel,” Estep said. “We remain confident that this layered approach significantly reduces risk and are encouraged that science continues to confirm there is a very low risk of virus transmission onboard aircraft.”


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Tags: airline, coronavirus, coronavirus recovery, middle seats

Photo credit: Interior of Delta Air Lines Airbus A321 shows the middle seat configuration and the limited space for social distancing on planes. Delta Air Lines

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