Delta will block seats into January as it tries to boost traveler confidence

Aug 20, 2020

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Delta Air Lines will block seats on its planes at least through early January, addressing what it sees as a need to regain traveler confidence in flying amid an uncertain outlook for the fall.

The Atlanta-based carrier is extending its program blocking middle seats through Jan. 6 and “maybe beyond,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian told staff during a virtual Town Hall on Wednesday (Aug. 19) viewed by TPG and confirmed by the airline. The move extends the artificial cap by three months from Sept. 30.

Delta is one of just four U.S. carriers, including Alaska Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines, capping the number of flyers onboard their planes during the coronavirus pandemic. Alaska is blocking seats through Oct. 31, JetBlue through Oct. 15 and Southwest through October.

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Delta is making some changes to its caps. While middle seats will remain blocked in general, the number of passengers allowed in economy cabins on its flights will rise to 75% of capacity from 60% on Oct. 1. The change will allow groups of three travelers or more to reserve seats together, even if it includes the middle seat.

In addition, the airline will begin booking all Delta One business-class cabins on its wide-body jets to full capacity starting Oct. 1. Delta spokesperson Morgan Durrant said this is because the cabins are “designed with more space and privacy built in.”

Delta had capped Delta One cabins at 75% of capacity on all flights except those to China.

Related: Which US airlines are blocking middle seats and requiring masks?

Airlines initially rolled out passenger caps and blocked middle seats under the auspices of social distancing onboard flights. They are part of a broader ramp-up against transmission of the virus on their planes, with other pieces including mandating masks and enhanced cleaning procedures.

However, with more known about the virus, the thinking on social distancing on aircraft has evolved. Airlines acknowledge that the seating caps are more of a measure to boost flyer confidence during a period of extremely low travel demand than a fail-safe measure against the virus.

For Delta, the carrier believes it’s an important effort to make travelers comfortable.

“Medical experts, including our own partners at Emory Healthcare, agree — more distance on board makes a difference,” Bill Lentsch, chief customer experience officer at Delta, said in a statement. “We believe that taking care of our customers and employees and restoring confidence in the safety of air travel is more important right now than filling up every seat on a plane.”

Related: Delta says air travel recovery has stalled, hopes more flyers return by end of summer

It is relatively easy for airlines to cap bookings today. Flights in the U.S. carried on average just 58 passengers during the week ending Aug. 16, according to data from trade group Airlines for America (A4A). This is down 41% compared to the same week in 2019.

In July, JetBlue president Joanna Geraghty said only about 10% of the airline’s flights were booked to its cap.

Delta’s extended seat-blocking comes as it prepares for a tough autumn. Bookings are no longer climbing steadily as they were in May and June, but rather “inching up,” said Bastian.

“We’re now at a point where we’re probably going to pause any additional add-backs until we see demand take a step forward,” he said, but added that Delta does not plan to pull back any flights either.

Delta will operate an average of 2,815 flights a day in August, according to Cirium schedules.

Related: Global air travel unlikely to recover until 2024 as COVID remains ‘issue’ in US, elsewhere

Other airlines are also rolling back plans for the fall. Southwest Airlines to fly a smaller percentage of its 2019 schedule in September and October than it will in August, and American Airlines will suspend service to 15 U.S. cities in October before reassessing its schedule in November.

The schedule cuts come as a new coronavirus stimulus bill is stalled in Congress. Airlines and their labor unions are pushing for an extension to employment protections under the payroll support program in the bill, something that would likely include renewed air service requirements.

“I’m not certain it’s going to happen,” said Bastian about the new stimulus bill, though hae added he “hopes” that it does. He estimates that additional payroll support could net Delta as much as $5 billion with around a third of it in the form of loans.

Delta has warned more than 2,500 pilots of possible furloughs come Oct. 1. Protections under the federal coronavirus aid package, or CARES Act, expire the day before.

Related: Should Congress dole out more money for airline employees?

Featured image by Mario Tama/Getty Images.




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