Split down the middle: Travelers have mixed feelings about airlines increasing capacity

Oct 31, 2020

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Even though I’m traveling way less this year because of the pandemic, I’ve actually flown Southwest Airlines more in the last few months than I have in several recent years.

This was, in part, because the airline capped capacity and blocked middle seats longer than most of the other airlines I’d normally fly out of Houston. Sure, I’m traveling again, but I still want to do everything in my power to minimize the risks. So, it seemed logical to book flights with an airline carrying fewer people whenever possible.

But, as you may have heard, Southwest Airlines will no longer block middle seats or cap capacity, effective Dec. 1. Capping capacity didn’t really affect revenue early on in the pandemic, as not very many people were flying in the spring and early summer. Starting in September, however, and at an increasing rate, the lost revenue from blocking seats did eventually hit the airline’s bottom line. From September to November, the airline expects to miss out on $80 to $100 million in pre-tax income due to blocked middle seats.

Southwest says it wasn’t going to change the rules until the science was clear that capacity controls on aircraft weren’t necessary — and the airline says this has now been demonstrated by multiple studies.

I know how these changes will — or won’t — affect my future travel plans. But will they stop other people from flying?

In a recent survey conducted for TPG by You Gov, 10% of travelers said having an airline block middle seats was the most important factor for flying this holiday season. But, it isn’t really surprising that having mask mandates enforced is a bigger concern than blocked seats. And though all U.S. airlines have a mandatory mask requirement, there’s no longer much consistency from one airline to the next in terms of blocked middle seats or capacity caps.

So, to find out what travelers really think when airlines stop blocking middle seats, we asked members of the TPG Facebook Lounge, which is filled with frequent flyers, to weigh in. Here’s what they had to say.

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Split down the middle

Some are comfortable with the crowds

Good news for Southwest: Many travelers may prefer not having a seatmate, but won’t be deterred from flying by health concerns if there’s someone in the adjacent seat.

“No, that will never impact my travel plans,” one TPG Lounge member said. “Anyone who believes the middle seat not being occupied will stop them from getting COVID from traveling is crazy.”

Another said that people who relied on “17-ish inches as a protocol for safety was really fooling themselves.”

“There is no such thing as social spacing on a plane,” another TPG Lounge member agreed. “Take the right precautions and you’ll be fine. The information that is out there proves that airplanes are one of the safest modes of transportation — even with every seat full.”

Of course, there will be travelers who will stick with Southwest simply because it’s the airline that still makes the most sense, even if they do have lingering concerns. One person, for example, said all their “points and Companion Pass are with [Southwest]” and they “don’t want to pay for tickets.”

But it’s a deal breaker for others

(Photo by Andrea Bacle Photography for The Points Guy)

While some travelers are not at all deterred by the thought of Southwest filling its flights (after all, other airlines including United and American have been doing so for months), there are absolutely travelers who say having a blocked middle seats matters — a lot.

“I won’t fly if the middle seat is taken,” one TPG Lounge member said.

Another person added, “If the middle seat isn’t blocked, my spouse and I will only be booking on carriers that have a first class and using up miles to pay the difference if [the out-of-pocket expense] is too high.”

And Southwest’s decision to unblock middle seats may have very well knocked some would-be travelers out of the sky. “Not booking our trip to see grandparents in Florida now,” one traveler wrote.

Changing allegiances

For other travelers, the move may simply push them toward other carriers that are continuing to keep planes under capacity.

Related: Airlines that block the middle seat 

Several travelers said they’ll switch to Delta for the time being. One TPG Lounge member said, “If Alaska still has open middle seats in February, I’ll be switching [to Alaska] for sure.”

Fortunately, if you have a Southwest flight booked after Nov. 30, when capacity will no longer be capped, you can get a full refund if you purchased your ticket before the announcement was made on Oct. 23 — and put in your request by Saturday, Oct. 31.

But your options on other carriers are swiftly dwindling, too.

JetBlue is capping seat sales at 70% through at least Dec. 1, 2020, though the airline is no longer guaranteeing you won’t be seated next to someone else.

“Throughout the holidays, we’ll monitor demand and continue to limit capacity on board,” JetBlue said, with the ultimate goal of “minimiz[ing] situations where a customer may be seated next to someone they don’t know.”

(Photo by Andrea Bacle Photography for The Points Guy)

Alaska Airlines is also largely committed to blocking middle seats through at least Jan. 6. But just like JetBlue, the airline is also not outright guaranteeing blocked middle seats on every single flight.

While the airline is walking away from some capacity caps after Oct. 31, Delta Air Lines is blocking middle seats and limiting capacity in Main Cabin, Comfort+ and Premium Select to 70% through at least Jan. 6. The airline will be booking its Delta One business-class cabins to full capacity.

Related: What it’s like to fly in the U.S. right now

When three’s company, not a crowd

Of course, flying with an airline that’s blocking middle seats may not matter to families or groups of three or more.

“[This] doesn’t impact my family,” one traveler said. “It’s me, my wife and our 2-year-old son. We fit perfectly into a row of three.”

Personally? I’m much less concerned about the middle seat when I’m traveling with my family and we fit perfectly in the available seat configuration. But I’m traveling by myself on an upcoming flight,  and I thought much harder about where on the plane I’d feel most comfortable flying.

Related: Tips when flying with your family during COVID-19

What you can do if you want more room

If you’re booked on an airline that no longer guarantees blocked middle seats, it’s very possible you’ll have a seatmate. There are, however, a few things you can do to increase the odds you end up with some extra breathing room.

  • While it’s not an exact science, you can try to avoid full flights.
  • You can book the neighboring seat for yourself. Southwest Airlines won’t allow you to book a second seat simply because you don’t want a seatmate, but other airlines will. Here’s how to buy yourself a second airline seat.
  • Try to fly in a suite. Sure, this is a very bougie tip, but it’s a real thing you can do on some routes with airline miles that may otherwise be collecting dust. You don’t have to sweat the middle seat when you have your own suite, such as the JetBlue Mint suite.
JetBlue Mint (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
  • Traditional first class may also make sense if you want more space. Even if you can’t get a true suite on your route, most first-class configurations offer more space and are in rows of two — perfect if you’re traveling with one other person. Again, let your miles work for you here.
  • Use a free change to a less full flight. Many airlines are automatically contacting travelers who are on flights that are booked at or near capacity as departure nears. In many cases, you can change to an emptier flight for no charge, assuming there’s one available. For example, if your airline has a 6 a.m. and a 10 a.m. departure for the same route, and one flight is full while the other is only at 60% capacity, you can ask to change flights. Just keep in mind things can change in a heartbeat and, all a sudden, your flight could become more (or less) crowded.

Bottom line

Some travelers may not mind that airlines are reopening middle seats, while for others, sharing an armrest with a stranger during a pandemic is a line they’re absolutely not willing to cross. And, of course, there are plenty of people who would vastly prefer to fly on an empty plane, but who won’t cancel a flight just because the cabin is getting cozier.

For travelers who would prefer more space, you might want to consider switching to another airline, moving to an emptier flight, being strategic about your seat selection and even upgrading. That way, you don’t have to rely entirely on the airline for your peace of mind.

Featured image by Daniel Ferner / EyeEm / Getty Images


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