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Airlines are blocking off the middle seat as social distancing becomes a priority in the skies


(Washington Post illustration; iStock)

For many industries across the country, the solution to abide by social distancing guidelines implemented in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak has been to shut down operations entirely.

But for airlines — deemed essential by the federal government — closing is not an option. So they’ve had to get creative while still allowing passengers to fly.

One of the ways is by blocking off an area of the plane loathed by fliers: the middle seat.

Delta recently announced a slew of changes to flight service to comply with social distancing, including blocking middle seats when booking for its main cabin, Comfort Plus and Premium Select seats on all of its flights.

Set to take effect starting Monday through the end of May, the changes are meant to “promote a safe flying experience” and will give passengers a little extra space when selecting seats. Once on board, passengers can also move to a different seat altogether if it establishes the recommended six feet between people.

American Airlines unveiled a similar policy it calls “relaxed seating,” which will block 50 percent of the middle seats on each plane, as well as those near attendants’ “jump” seats. Passengers can similarly move to another available seat.

“American is committed to caring for customers through these unprecedented times,” Kurt Stache, senior vice president of customer experience, said in a statement.

The airlines are being proactive, too. Flight attendants have the authority to map out safe seating assignments as travelers board. Airlines are also reducing the number of passengers who board and, ultimately, travel on each flight.

United, meanwhile, has implemented “a solution to auto-assign and reassign seats,” according to a spokesman for the airline.

These changes are all ushered in as travel has dipped dramatically across the country, with the Transportation Security Administration recording record lows for travelers consistently since the outbreak began to spread rapidly in March.

According to TSA checkpoint data, the number of travelers screened nationwide was 94,931 on Wednesday. On the same date one year ago, the number of travelers was 2,229,276.

The lack of passengers has devastated the airline industry and worried experts over the future of air travel. Planes have been grounded, many for good, and when travelers are on flights, many have seen an 80 percent reduction in capacity compared with previous markers.

The Cares Act is set to deliver $50 billion in aid to the ailing airline industry, which observers hope will float it until September. But the historically low number of travelers means that, for now, airlines will have to find new ways to get people to travel while addressing their concerns over virus exposure.

Read more:

The unofficial rules for every seat on a plane: The middle

The latest flexible policies at major airlines in the wake of coronavirus

How to secure a refund for a flight canceled due to coronavirus, according to the experts

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