Delta now has 'dynamic' seat maps that automatically block rows for families
Throughout the pandemic, Delta was one of the major U.S. carriers to guarantee flyers extra space by blocking the middle seat for additional social distancing and passenger comfort.
While that policy is now history, the Atlanta-based carrier has implemented a new type of seat blocking. This one, however, is designed to make it easier for groups of travelers to sit together.
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Specifically, the carrier is blocking a handful of rows in the main economy cabin for those traveling as part of a group. These seats are not assignable to solo travelers, nor to those traveling with just one additional person on the reservation.
They’ll instead be available for selection by those who have reservations with three or more travelers on a single reservation. (They'll also be available to Medallion elite members traveling with one or two passengers.)
Delta’s “dynamic seat-map algorithm,” as the airline calls it, first started rolling out quietly in 2019 and now uses historical booking and seat assignment data to determine how many rows to hold back on a given flight. For instance, a search for flights between New York and Fort Lauderdale — a leisure-heavy route — shows that the airline is holding back five rows.
Meanwhile, on a more typical business route frequented by solo travelers, say from Chicago to Boston, the airline is holding back just two rows.
In the most extreme example of seat-blocking that I could find, Delta is holding back a whopping eight rows, or 48 seats, on a Christmas Eve flight from New York-JFK to Cancun.
The seat-blocking varies by aircraft, route and other factors, a spokesperson confirmed to TPG. The logic incorporates many factors, and there’s no definitive "rule" as to how many seats will be held back on a given flight. For now, Delta is only blocking the last few rows on any given plane, though that logic could theoretically change over time.
Related: How to make sure your family can sit together on a plane
In fact, the airline will update the algorithm in real-time, and it’ll release seats if it determines that there are more solo travelers than groups or families on a given flight compared to the algorithm's original prediction.
In confirming the move to TPG, Delta said that “being a customer-centric brand means we’re constantly working to offer optimal experiences across travel. Taking a dynamic approach with our seat map displays is one way of doing that by providing preferred seating choices in all cabins – at the time of booking or at the gate when working with an agent – for customers traveling alone or with a group.”
How to find Delta's blocked seats
To determine if Delta is blocking seats on your flight, you can perform two searches during the booking process — one with just a single passenger in the reservation, followed by a second search for the same flight with three or more passengers.
If you take a look at the seat map in both cases, you should be able to identify which seats Delta is blocking for groups. For example, in the screenshot below, you can see that Delta is holding back rows 29 through 31 for bookings of three or more passengers. (Rows 32 and 33 remain blocked for all passengers, and they're only available for assignment at the airport.)
Delta’s move is interesting as it’s one of the first attempts we’ve seen from a major network carrier to provide dedicated seating areas for groups.
Of course, if seats closer to the front of the plane are available, you don’t necessarily “need” to select a row in the back. This initiative just provides another option should adjacent seats closer to the front of the plane be unavailable.
In the end, this should also help minimize the number of times a family needs to scramble at the gate (or onboard) to find passengers willing to play musical chairs to accommodate them sitting together. The move will likely be applauded by families, especially those traveling with young children.
In fact, the dynamic seat blocking might lead to a faster boarding process, especially on flights with lots of families and groups traveling together. One big downside is that solo flyers booking at the last minute could end up being stuck in a middle towards the front, as opposed to a window or aisle in the back.
Either way, it'll be interesting to see how Delta's seat-blocking algorithm evolves over time — and whether any of its competitors implement something similar.