If you’re considering flying (or need to) any time soon, the airline you choose will almost certainly have a big impact on the social distancing involved in your flight. While a few airlines are still blocking seats from being booked to allow for extra space, they might not be doing so for long. And some airlines recently ended the practice.
Here are the major airlines that have been blocking off seats to maintain social distancing, and how long they say they will continue to do so.
The only U.S. airline of the Big Three that is still committed to distancing seat assignments on flights, Delta will continue to block seats through March 30. The airline is so far the only U.S. airline to commit to blocking middle seats through the first quarter of 2021. Delta said this month that the extension was made because its customers still want extra space for in-flight safety. The airline said the practice “adds confidence and reassurance” for travel during the pandemic.
Delta is also limiting first-class cabins to half-capacity, and it is “blocking one aisle of seats on aircraft without middle seats.” For bookings of three or more people, middle seats will appear as available in an effort to allow families to select seats together on the seat map.
Starting Dec. 1, budget carrier Southwest will join competitors United and American Airlines in returning to filling flights as normal. Southwest began limiting the number of seats sold on its flights in May and continued the practice through the Thanksgiving travel rush.
“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 chief executive Gary Kelly said in an October statement announcing the change. “Today, aligned with science-based findings from trusted medical and aviation organizations, we will resume selling all available seats for travel beginning December 1, 2020.”
The airline said on an earnings call that it will notify passengers two days before travel if their flight is near full, and will give passengers the option to be rebooked onto another flight free if one is available.
The airline is still leaving seats open as first-come, first-served based on boarding group. “As always, Southwest customers may choose their own seats,” Southwest says on its website about the boarding process. “In Southwest’s open seating environment, families, or those traveling together, may still sit together and occupy a middle seat for their convenience.” Previously, middle seats were being accounted for in booking limits only through October, so the practice could again be extended.
Starting Dec. 1, JetBlue is no longer blocking seats for sale. The airline was previously limiting flight capacity to 70 percent of normal levels “to provide additional space between individuals who are not traveling together.”
Until Oct. 15, JetBlue was blocking all middle seats for purchase on its larger aircraft, and most aisle seats were “blocked for purchase" on smaller aircraft. For travel after that date, however, the airline quietly updated its seating policy to remove that middle-seat guarantee, and in November the airline reversed its seat-blocking policy.
Through Jan. 6, 2021, Alaska Airlines says it is “limiting the number of guests on our flights and blocking seats.” Gate agents may reassign groups or families to be seated together, although the airline notes that “there can be occasions where extra space cannot be guaranteed due to unforeseen changes such as re-accommodating guests from a previously canceled flight.”
After Dec. 15, Hawaiian Airlines says it will no longer limit capacity to prevent booking middle seats. The airline cited recent studies on the risk of in-flight coronavirus transmission, stating on its website that “respected researchers such as the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Department of Defense have validated that the risk of viral transmission on board a commercial aircraft is extremely low.”
Airlines no longer blocking seats
The following airlines are no longer blocking middle seats, but may alert travelers during check-in if their flight is near capacity or full: Allegiant, American, Frontier, Spirit, Sun Country and United.