Which US airlines are blocking middle seats, requiring masks?

May 3, 2020

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with additional information. 

For weeks, as most Americans limited trips outside their homes to outdoor recreation and unavoidable visits to the grocery store, airline passenger loads plummeted to levels most of us could have never imagined. Those once-in-a-lifetime solo flights quickly became a daily occurrence, if flight attendants had anyone to look after at all.

Now, some U.S. states are beginning to ease restrictions, and an increasing number of travelers are taking to the skies once again. While passengers may see almost entirely unreserved seat maps at booking, expecting to find those conditions onboard, airlines are canceling and consolidating flights. In some cases, that results in aircraft that end fuller than expected, making social distancing difficult — even with, despite the best intentions of gate agents, crew members and even the passengers onboard.

The issue gained addition attention this week after Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, began to push the issue. She took to social media (such as in the above tweet) and penned a letter imploring the government to make mask-usage mandatory on flights for both crews and passengers.

For now, the feds have not intervened — yet. But momentum may be building. On Wednesday, two U.S. Senators sent a letter urging the Department of Transportation and the Department of Health and Human Services to mandate face masks for all passengers and crews.

As the efforts gain steam, U.S. airlines have already begun to update their social distancing policies, rolling out requirements aimed at avoiding the spread of coronavirus during a flight.

Without firm requirements from the federal government, policies differ significantly from one carrier to the next, creating a lot of confusion among travelers. Some of the procedures we’re seeing include:

  • Aircraft fogging and daily deep cleans
  • Blocking seats to encourage social distancing
  • Compulsory face coverings for passengers and/or crew

I reached out to all U.S.-based airlines, asking representatives to detail their current policies. It’s important to check with your airline, as policies seem to be evolving almost daily. Here’s what you can expect when traveling on each U.S. carrier:

Airline Masks required (crew) Masks available (passengers) Masks required (passengers) Cleaning before every flight Limited seat selection Middle seats not sold Back-to-front boarding 
Alaska Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Allegiant Yes Yes
American Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Delta Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Frontier Yes Yes Yes Yes
Hawaiian Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
JetBlue Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Southwest Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes* Yes*
Spirit Yes Yes Yes
Sun Country Yes Yes
United Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

*Southwest will maintain its open seating policy, but will drastically limit the number of seats sold on its flights.

I’ll also break the policies down in more detail below, giving travelers an idea of what to expect throughout their journey.

In This Post

Alaska

Aircraft cleaning

Alaska Airlines is cleaning common touch points (arm rests, seat belts, overhead controls, etc.) before every flight.

Face masks

All Alaska employees who can’t maintain six feet of separation are required to wear face masks, and, as of May 11, all passengers are required to wear masks as well. The airline will have masks available for passengers who forget theirs at home.

Passenger loads

Alaska is not selling 50% of the seats in first class, any middle seats on aircraft with 3-3 seating or any aisle seats on aircraft with 2-2 seating, through May 31. Families who want to sit together may request to do so via Alaska’s reservations line or at the airport.

Other measures

With a flight attendant’s permission, passengers may move to avoid sitting near other travelers, if seats are available elsewhere on the aircraft.

Allegiant

Aircraft cleaning

In addition to regular routing cleaning, Allegiant is applying an antimicrobial protectant that, according to the airline, “kills viruses, germs and bacteria on contact for 14 days.” Disinfectant wipes are available upon request on all aircraft.

Face masks

Allegiant is recommending but not requiring that passengers and crew members wear face masks, except at airports where they’re mandated by local regulations. During boarding, the airline will provide passengers with healthy and safety kits, which include face masks, gloves and hand wipes.

Passenger loads

Allegiant is not selling the first row on every flight, to protect crew members. All other seats are available to purchase, though the airline is not allowing seat selection of every other row during booking, to maintain separation when possible. Agents may assign previously blocked seats based on passenger demand at the gate.

Other measures

Gate agents are making frequent announcements to encourage social distancing, and the airline has added signage to encourage the practice in lines, in the gate area and onboard aircraft.

American

Aircraft cleaning

Currently, American is thoroughly cleaning aircraft during longer stops, but will expand this program to every mainline flight beginning in early May, including using an EPA-approved disinfectant to clean common customer touch points (arm rests, seat belts, overhead controls, etc.), along with cockpits, galleys and other crew areas.

Face masks

American requires masks for all employees, whenever six feet of distance can not be maintained, and, as of May 11, passengers are required to wear masks as well. Additionally, AA will begin distributing face masks, along with sanitizing wipes or gels, to passengers beginning in early May.

Passenger loads

American is limiting the number of passengers on all flights through May 31, though this practice will vary from one aircraft to the next, and may not result in all middle seats being unoccupied. Currently, AA is blocking 50% of middle seats for selection, but not for sale — a gate agent may assign blocked seats only when necessary. Additionally, passengers will not be seated near flight attendant jump seats.

Other measures

American has also increased the frequency of cleaning areas it controls throughout the airport, including ticket counters, team member rooms and gates.

Delta

Aircraft cleaning

Delta is thoroughly cleaning common touch points (arm rests, seat belts, overhead controls, etc.) before every flight and all aircraft undergo a disinfectant fogging procedure every night. Beginning in early May, that same fogging procedure will be used before every flight.

Face masks

Delta is requiring that all employees and contractors wear masks whenever six feet of separation is not possible. Passengers are required to wear face coverings as well, which will be available upon request at ticket counters, gates and onboard flights.

Passenger loads

Delta is blocking the sale of middle seats in economy, as well as Comfort+ and Premium Select. These seats cannot be sold, so they should not be occupied, although families can request that a gate agent seat them together. Additionally, Delta is blocking automatic upgrades, and processing them at the gate, as social distancing practices allow.

Other measures

Delta is boarding flights from the rear of the aircraft to the front, to minimize opportunities for customers to come into contact onboard.

Frontier

Aircraft cleaning

Frontier applies a fogging disinfectant, which the airline claims is effective in killing viruses for up to 10 days. Aircraft are “wiped down” every night as well.

Face masks

All employees are required to wear face masks while on the job, and, as of May 8, passengers will be required to wear face coverings as well. According to the airline, “Very young children, for whom a face covering is inadvisable, will be exempt from the policy.”

Passenger loads

Frontier is blocking every other row to encourage social distancing while enabling families to select seats together, though the airline may assign these seats, depending on passenger loads. Additionally, the boarding procedure has been adjusted, with passengers boarding from the rear of the aircraft to the front, to avoid unnecessary contact.

Other measures

Frontier has added a special “health acknowledgment” at check-in, asking passengers to confirm that they nor anyone in their household has exhibited COVID-19 symptoms within 14 days, that they’ve checked their temperature and do not have a fever and that they will sanitize their hands before the flight. The system relies on passengers to be forthcoming. If a passenger cannot accept the health acknowledgment, they’ll be issued a credit for a future Frontier flight.

Hawaiian

Aircraft cleaning

Hawaiian is thoroughly disinfecting all planes after each trans-Pacific flight with hospital-grade disinfectants, focusing on common touch areas. All inter-island aircraft are also cleaned after every flight into Honolulu (HNL) and are disinfected each night. Sanitizing wipes are also available onboard.

Face masks

Airport employees and flight attendants are required to wear masks, and Hawaiian is requiring all passengers to wear face coverings starting May 8.

Passenger loads

The airline will be creating more personal space at check-in, boarding and on flights. Guests will be asked to remain seated at the gate area until their row is called. In addition, if you’re seated in the Main Cabin, you’ll board from the rear of the plane in groups of three to five rows at a time. If you require special assistance or are seated in First Class, you’ll be able to pre-board.

The airline will also be blocking middle seats to provide more personal space on board.

Other measures

The state of Hawaii is currently implementing a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all arrivals.

JetBlue

Aircraft cleaning

According to JetBlue, the airline is “increasing aircraft cleaning before every flight and overnight, including surfaces that are touched most like tray tables.”

Face masks

All JetBlue crew members and passengers are required to wear face coverings or mask, with the exception of small children who are unable to wear a face covering.

Passenger loads

The airline is limiting the number of seats it’s selling on flights, blocking middle seats on its A320s and A321s, and all aisle seats on its Embraer E-190s. The airline may sell additional seats on flights where passengers choose to sit next a companion, in turn freeing up an additional seat for sale. See this post for more details.

Other measures

JetBlue is sanitizing surfaces throughout airport terminals more frequently, and implementing other measures to limit contact, such as encouraging customers to scan their own boarding passes.

Southwest

Aircraft cleaning

In the beginning of March, Southwest began applying a disinfectant during overnight cleanings, with an extra emphasis on high-touch items, including window shades and seat belts. Southwest has also rolled out electrostatic treatments, which the airline is applying across the fleet, with each session providing “weeks of protection.” Finally, the airline will clean aircraft between flights — according to Southwest, “New procedures will introduce additional cleaning between flights to supplement the work of Flight Attendants who keep cabins tidy.”

Face masks

All Southwest employees are required to wear face masks when interacting with customers, while customers will be required to wear masks beginning May 11. Face masks and sanitizing wipes will be available upon request.

Passenger loads

Southwest is maintaining its open seating policy, but limiting the number of passengers on each flight by at least 20%. While customers can sit wherever they like, flight attendants may ask customers not to occupy the first rows on an aircraft, to maintain significant separation from jump seats.

Other measures

Southwest has shifted from boarding groups of 30 passengers at a time to groups of 10, and gate agents ask customers to scan their own boarding passes, minimizing interactions with staff. All in-flight beverage and snack service has been discontinued. Additionally, the airline will also be installing transparent plexiglass shields at all ticket counters and gates.

Spirit

Aircraft cleaning

According to the airline’s dedicated COVID-19 webpage, Spirit has “expanded our ground teams’ aircraft cleaning protocols with extra focus on high-frequency touch points like handles, seat belt buckles, tray tables, and armrests.”

Face masks

As of May 11, all Spirit passengers and customer-facing employees will be required to wear masks or face coverings.

Passenger loads

Spirit is not currently limiting the sale of seats on all flights. The airline is blocking the advance selection of middle seats, though it’s possible a gate agent may assign passengers to middle seats when necessary.

Other measures

Spirit is offering self bag-drop stations at select airports, minimizing interactions with employees. The airline has also installed clear shields at counters, added “distance dots” to promote distancing and shifted to an “on-demand” snack service.

Sun Country

Aircraft cleaning

Sun Country has increased the frequency at which it cleans high-touch areas, including arm rests, tray tables and lavatories. The airline has also added a disinfectant, which is applied between day flights when an aircraft is on the ground for more than two hours, and during all overnight cleanings at the airline’s Minneapolis-Saint Paul (MSP) hub.

Face masks

Sun Country is requiring that crew members wear face masks, though passengers are not required to cover their faces, except at airports where they’re mandated by local regulations.

Passenger loads

Sun Country is blocking middle seats for reservation, though the airline is currently selling all flights to capacity, so a gate agent may need to assign middle seats in some cases. Families wishing to sit together may make a request at the check-in counter or gate.

Other measures

The airline is not offering any service onboard, including complimentary beverages and buy-on-board products, to minimize interactions between passengers and crew.

United

Aircraft cleaning

In addition to aircraft cleanings before every flight, United has implemented electrostatic spraying before all long-haul international flights, and on all mainline aircraft parked overnight at U.S. hubs. Also, by June, the airline will add electrostatic spraying and will use a disinfectant to clean customer touch points and surfaces before all flights.

Face masks

United is requiring that all employees and passengers cover their faces while onboard an aircraft. Employees are encouraged to cover their faces while not working onboard an aircraft, as well. United will make masks available to passengers upon request.

Passenger loads

United is limiting the pre-selection of certain seats, including middle seats on larger aircraft — the carrier is not reducing capacity, however, so these seats may be assigned at the gate, if necessary.

Other measures

The airline is boarding passengers from the rear of the aircraft to the front, to minimize interactions onboard. Gate agents will also board fewer passengers at a time, in an effort to avoid crowding in the jet bridge, and will encourage passengers to scan their own boarding passes.

Bottom line

Airline policies are evolving constantly — just because a face mask isn’t required at the time you booked doesn’t mean it won’t be necessary to wear one when you travel two days later. At the same time, as demand begins to pick up, carriers may feel financial pressure to adjust seat-blocking policies — with slim margins, it’s hard for a flight to turn a profit if you aren’t allowing travelers to purchase a third of the seats.

Ultimately, traveling right now does carry some risk, even though it may be impossible to quantify. Driving may seem like a safer alternative, but with food and fuel stops, bathroom visits and overnight stays on longer car journeys, avoiding air travel entirely isn’t always the logical pick. Many travelers, myself included, might start making booking decisions based on airline polices around seat restrictions and face masks for crew and passengers.

And, as always, individuals who don’t feel comfortable traveling right now should take advantage of their airline’s flexible change or cancellation policy to cancel or postpone their trip.

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