Updated Monday, July 13 to include expanded dates of blocked seats on Alaska Airlines and JetBlue.

The landscape of aviation is changing faster than a private jet en route to a private island. If you find yourself travelling, be ready for a very different experience. It starts even upon arrival to the airport. Once onboard, you’ll find that the usual amenity kit may now be replaced by masks and hand sanitizer.

One of the most polarizing issues onboard is social distancing. Only a few airlines are blocking middle seats while others are selling all available seats. American Airlines pilots went as far as asking the government to buy middle seats to facilitate social distancing. Here’s a rundown as to how domestic airlines are handling the issue of the dreaded middle seat.

Social distancing in our dreams. Pictured – Hi Fly’s reconfiguration of the giant A380 for cargo flights. Courtesy of CNN.

Delta Airlines

Delta is leading the way when it comes to onboard social distancing. They have doubled down on their commitment by continuing to block middle seats through at least September 30. On aircraft in a 2×2 configuration, they are blocking some aisle seats. Per Chief Customer Experience Officer Bill Lentsch,

Reducing the overall number of customers on every aircraft across the fleet is one of the most important steps we can take to ensure a safe experience for our customers and people. Delta is offering the highest standards in safety and cleanliness so we’re ready for customers when they’re ready to fly again.

Furthermore, Delta is also capping some seats. In single-aisle aircraft, which are frequently used on domestic routes, Delta is capping seating at 50% in First Class and Delta One cabins. On double-aisle aircraft, Delta is capping 60% in Main Cabin, Delta Comfort+, and Delta Premium Select; and 75% in Delta One cabins.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest does not have assigned seating, but states,

Middle seats [are] open through at least September 30 to provide Customers more personal space onboard.

In other words, they are reducing capacity by around one-third so that middle seats can effectively remain blocked.

All of Southwest’s aircraft are configured in a 3×3 layout, so there is no need for differentiation between aircraft. As long as this policy remains in effect, the middle seats on both sides of the aircraft can remain blocked. Families can still choose to sit together if they wish.

JetBlue

Through September 8, JetBlue is blocking middle seats by capping flights at 80 percent. Specifically,

We are limiting the number of seats for sale on JetBlue flights, allowing us to provide additional space between individuals who are not traveling together. Middle seats are blocked for purchase on our larger aircraft, and most aisle seats are blocked for purchase on our smaller aircraft.

In other words, flights aboard Airbus A320 and A321 aircraft will have the middle seats blocked on both sides of the plane. The seat layout is 3×3 on those aircraft. Flights on Embraer 190 aircraft are in a 2×2 configuration and thus will have aisle seats blocked. Passengers travelling together can chose to sit next to each other.  

Alaska Airlines

Reports are that Alaska is also blocking middle seats. In Alaska Airlines’ own words,

Through September 30, 2020, we’re limiting the number of guests on our flights and blocking seats.

Alaska Airlines’ aircraft are all single aisle. The following aircraft are configured in a 3×3 layout in economy, thus “blocking select seats” would be the middle seats: A319, A320, A321, Boeing 737. And just two aircraft type are in a 2×2 layout in economy: the Embraer 175 and Bombardier Q400. The latter two aircraft types are 1×2 in business class, and the aforementioned aircraft is a 2×2 layout.

Hawaiian Airlines

Many rejoiced when Hawaii announced it was lifting the 14-day quarantine for travelers on August 1. But do keep an eye on this, as the governors and mayors are discussing whether to expand restrictions. If you do find yourself on Hawaiian Airlines, they are blocking seats.

Hawaiian’s A321 aircraft are arranged in a 3×3 layout in economy, so middle seats can be blocked easily. And on the turboprop ATR-42, a 2×2 layout, adjacent seats are blocked. A combination of the above is necessary on their 2×3 layout of the Boeing 717 aircraft. But as Simple Flying notes, it is a bit trickier and unclear on Hawaiian Airlines’s long haul aircraft, the A330. Economy on said aircraft is in a 2x4x2 layout.

Frontier Airlines

While Frontier was previously charging passengers $39 or more to ensure the middle seat would remain unoccupied, huge backlash forced them to rescind that policy. Frontier is now blocking middle seats. No timeline has been indicated as to when they will cease blocking seats.

All Frontier aircraft have a 3×3 seat layout.

Spirit Airlines

Spirit’s official stance on the issue as per their website,

We will also continue to support social distancing measures where possible, but please note that some flights may be more full than others.

In plain English, they are not capping the number of tickets sold. While they are blocking the selection of middle seats before the flight, it is possible that middle seats will be assigned to passengers.

Allegiant Air

Likewise for Allegiant,

Customers are encouraged not to book the middle seat, unless it’s to ensure families can sit together.

Passengers can choose to be notified if a flight exceeds 65% capacity.

American Airlines

American cheekily notes,

As more people continue to travel, customers may notice that flights are booked to capacity starting July 1.

Filtering through the poetry, American Airlines is not blocking seats or reducing capacity.

United Airlines

United first claimed they were blocking middle seats, but rather quickly it became apparent that their definition of this may have another meaning. Simply, when possible, United will try to socially distance passengers. But they are not capping passenger loads. Some seats may be unavailable for advanced selection, but may be assigned depending on passenger numbers.

And United will “do their best” to keep customers informed if their flight is “fairly full.”

Is there an ejector seat button?

Airlines including Delta, American, and United are allowing passengers to request a flight change if they do not wish to fly on a particular flight due to crowds. Note the term “request.” If there is a later flight and there are seats available, one may be able to change flights. But while this seems like a great gesture, it is definitely hit and miss. Airlines are running drastically reduced schedules and routes may be flown infrequently; therefore, the option to change flights may not actually be feasible.

Granted, what an airline says and what an airline actually does may not always perfectly align. (We know, shocking.) As one recent United and Southwest traveler noted, both airlines lacked consistency in areas such as boarding processes and terminal practices.

Final Approach

To give credit where credit is due, some airlines are certainly doing better than others. All this can and likely will change at a moment’s notice. And it remains to be seen if ticket costs are rising on those airlines blocking middle seats.

In the meantime, keep an eye on the airlines’ sites linked above for updates as well as further info regarding airport procedures. If you or someone you know has flown recently, share the experience in the comments below!

Cheers and mask on.