Which US airlines are blocking middle seats?
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with additional information.
For months, as most Americans limited trips outside their homes, airline passenger loads plummeted to levels most of us could have never imagined. More recently, however, many U.S. states have eased 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 an aircraft that is fuller than expected, making social distancing difficult.
U.S. airlines have been continuously updating their social distancing policies and rolling out requirements aimed at avoiding the spread of germs in-flight.
However, 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 (dates vary by airline; see below for your carrier)
- Compulsory face coverings for passengers and/or crew
While it’s important to check with your airline as things can change by the day, here’s what you can expect when traveling on each U.S. carrier:
|Airline||Masks available||Masks required||Cleaning before every flight||Middle seats not sold|
|Alaska||Yes||Yes||Yes||Ends Jan. 6|
|Hawaiian||Yes||Yes||Ends Dec. 16|
|Southwest||Yes||Yes||Yes||Ends Dec. 1|
*Southwest will maintain its open seating policy but will limit the number of seats sold on its flights until Dec. 1. **Allegiant permits face shields as well, which health officials say are far less effective than a properly fitting face mask in many situations.
Let’s break the policies down in more detail below, giving you an idea of what to expect throughout your journey.
Alaska Airlines is cleaning common touchpoints (armrests, seat belts, overhead controls, etc.) using a high-grade EPA disinfectant before every flight.
All Alaska employees are required to wear face masks, and all passengers two years and older are required to wear masks as well. Masks with exhaust valves are not allowed, and those who refuse to wear an approved mask or face covering may be banned from flying the airline. Alaska Airlines will have masks available for passengers who forget theirs at home.
Through Jan. 6, 2021, Alaska is blocking middle seats. Note that the airline does not guarantee a blocked seat, however, as the carrier may choose to use those seats to accommodate passengers on previously canceled flights.
The airline has reduced inflight service to limit onboard interaction, so customers are encouraged to bring their own food and drinks onboard. With a flight attendant’s permission, passengers may move to avoid sitting near other travelers, if seats are available elsewhere on the aircraft.
In addition to regular 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.
All Allegiant customers, flight attendants airport employees are required to wear face coverings, though the airline allows passengers to wear face shields instead of a mask, which have been proven to be less effective in many situations. During boarding, the airline will provide passengers with health and safety kits, which include face masks, gloves and hand wipes.
Allegiant is not selling the first row on every flight, to protect crew members. All other seats are available to purchase, and agents may assign previously blocked seats based on passenger demand at the gate.
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. If a flight exceeds 65% capacity, passengers can be notified about possible reaccomodation options. Additionally, the airline is currently boarding flights from the back of the plane to the front.
American says it is thoroughly cleaning aircraft between flights, including using an EPA-approved disinfectant to clean common customer touchpoints (armrests, seat belts, tray tables, etc.), along with cockpits, galleys and other crew areas.
American requires masks for all employees and passengers are required to wear masks as well, from the time they enter their departure airport to the time they leave the airport upon arrival. American does not permit masks with valves or vents, and customers who refuse to wear a mask or face covering may be banned from flying the airline. AA encourages customers to bring their own face coverings, though a limited supply of masks may be available at the gate.
On flights where at least 70% of passengers have checked in, customers will have the option to move to another flight free of charge.
American has also increased the frequency of cleaning areas it controls throughout the airport, including ticket counters, team member rooms and gates.
Delta is thoroughly cleaning common touchpoints (armrests, seat belts, overhead controls, etc.) and applying a disinfectant fogging before every flight. TPG had an opportunity to witness an aircraft cleaning — see this post for a closer look at the airline’s current procedures.
Delta is requiring that all employees and contractors wear masks, and passengers are required to wear face coverings as well, at all Delta areas in the airport and onboard all flights. Masks are available upon request at ticket counters, gates and onboard flights. Customers who refuse to wear a mask or face covering may be banned from flying the airline. Note that face masks that include an exhaust valve are not permitted.
Through at least Mar. 31, 2021, the number of passengers allowed in economy cabins will be no more than 70% of capacity of any aircraft that Delta flies. In addition, the airline is booking its Delta One business-class cabins to full capacity.
Delta is boarding flights from the rear of the aircraft to the front, to minimize opportunities for customers to come into contact onboard. The airline is also requiring customers to complete a health acknowledgement prior to boarding.
Frontier is now cleaning aircraft before every flight, focusing on passenger seating, cabin walls, overhead bins, galleys and lavatories. A more thorough disinfectant cleaning will take place when time allows between flights.
All employees are required to wear face masks and all passengers age two and above are required to wear face coverings as well, at all Frontier areas within the airport and onboard all flights.
Frontier is boarding passengers boarding from the rear of the aircraft to the front, to avoid unnecessary contact.
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. Finally, the airline is requiring passengers to undergo a temperature check at boarding — customers with temperatures at or above 100.4 degrees will be denied boarding.
Hawaiian says it 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.
Airport employees and flight attendants are required to wear masks, and all passengers are required to wear masks during boarding, during the entire flight and during deplaning as well.
Hawaiian is blocking the sale of middle seats on certain aircraft through Dec. 15, 2020.
The airline is boarding economy passengers from back to front. Additionally, the state of Hawaii is currently implementing a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all arrivals.
The airline is conducting “deep cleans” of aircraft, including electrostatic spraying, overnight, and tray tables and lavatories are disinfected before every flight.
All JetBlue crew members and passengers over the age of two are required to wear face coverings or masks. JetBlue will no longer allow passengers to wear masks with exhaust valves, and if you forget your face covering at home, the airline will provide one at the gate. Passengers who refuse to wear a mask may be banned from flying the airline.
JetBlue is capping seat sales at 70% through at least Dec. 1, 2020, though the airline is no longer guaranteeing that you won’t be seated next to a stranger, as some middle seats may be available for assignment. In Mint cabins, all seats are available for selection, with the exception of the two aisle seats in Row 1. JetBlue will limit onboard capacity to 85% from Dec. 2 through Jan. 7, 2021.
JetBlue says it 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 spends more than six hours cleaning all aircraft overnight, and the carrier says it is using a disinfectant to clean tray tables and lavatories before every flight.
All Southwest employees are required to wear face masks and passengers are required to wear masks or face coverings during their entire journey as well. Face masks and sanitizing wipes are available upon request.
Southwest is maintaining its open seating policy. It had been limiting the number of passengers on each flight, but that will end beginning Dec. 1 when the carrier will begin selling flights to capacity.
Southwest has shifted from boarding groups of 30 passengers at a time to groups of 10, and gate agents are asking 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.
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.”
Spirit passengers and customer-facing employees are required to wear masks or face coverings. Masks with exhaust valves are not allowed.
Spirit is not currently limiting the sale of seats on 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.
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 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.
Sun Country is requiring that all passengers and crew members wear face coverings.
Sun Country is selling all flights to capacity.
Sun Country is not offering any service onboard, including complimentary beverages and buy-on-board products, to minimize interactions between passengers and crew.
United utilizes electrostatic spraying before most flights, in addition to regular preflight aircraft cleaning procedures. The airline is also applying an antimicrobial solution every seven days.
United is requiring that all employees and passengers cover their faces in the airport and while onboard an aircraft. As with many other carriers, vented masks are not permitted. Customers who refuse to wear a mask or face covering may be banned from flying the airline. United will make masks available to passengers upon request.
United is selling all flights to capacity. In cases where more than 70% of passengers have checked in, the airline will allow customers to move to another flight free of charge.
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.
Policies are evolving constantly, so we recommend checking with your airline for the latest requirements. Additionally, 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.
Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.
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