Delta is no longer capping Delta One capacity on every flight
Each U.S. airline is taking a different approach to managing onboard health and well-being of travelers and staff during the pandemic.
Though all major U.S. airlines are requiring face coverings when flying, the details of the cleaning procedures, seat blocking and flexible travel waivers differ by carrier. Of the "big three" U.S. carriers, Delta's done the most to reassure customers that it’s safe to travel. It’s capping the capacity of its flights, cleaning planes at each turn and modifying inflight service protocols.
But the Atlanta-based carrier quietly made a change to its seat-blocking policy over the weekend. Specifically, on flights to and from China, the airline will no longer impose a capacity cap on the Delta One Suites cabin for flights operated by the flagship Airbus A350.
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On July 25, Delta revised its policy on capping the capacity of flights to specifically exclude flights to China. As Delta explains,
Strict government restrictions on the number of flights Delta is authorized to operate to China means seat availability remains extremely limited. To meet high demand in this market while safeguarding our customers and employees, bookings on Delta flights between the U.S. and Shanghai will be offered up to full capacity in the Delta One cabin where the Delta One suite provides more space and privacy with a full-height door at every suite and dividers between center suites. Middle seats in Delta Premium Select and Main Cabin will continue to be blocked.
We reached out to Delta to learn more about the rationale behind this change and will update the story when we hear back.
In late June, Delta extended its overall seating cap through Sept. 30, the day when the coronavirus aid package, or CARES Act, restrictions on airlines lift. Until then, the airline is capping seating as follows:
- 50% in first class and Delta One cabins with one aisle
- 60% in coach, Comfort+ and Premium Select
- 75% in Delta One cabins with two aisles, except for China flights
These caps are designed to reduce the number of people on each flight and ensure that the middle seat is blocked throughout coach and premium economy. For flights in high demand, Delta's said that it will look to upgauge to a larger aircraft type or add more frequencies.
Related: The ultimate guide to Delta One Suites
But with China flights, Delta can't make either move. Since July, the carrier has operated two flights a week to Shanghai -- one from Seattle and one from Detroit. All flights are operated by the Airbus A350 — Delta's largest aircraft — and stop in Seoul for a crew change.
Delta's already flying its highest capacity jet to China, so it can't upgrade the aircraft. It also can't add more frequencies due to the tit-for-tat exchanges between the U.S. and Chinese aviation authorities. As of the latest reportis, the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) allows U.S. airlines to offer two round-trip flights per week. Delta has hit that maximum, so its next-best option was to unblock seats.
But if there's one cabin that Delta fills to 100%, the safest is likely Delta One Suites. These fully enclosed seats are some of the most private in the skies. There's a door on the aisle to keep you partitioned off from others, and the seats themselves are spread out quite far apart.
Related: There's more to Delta's strategy of blocking the middle seat
Capping the capacity of flights and blocking middle seats have effectively become a COVID-19 marketing tool that airlines are using to encourage travelers to take to the skies again. Unlike Delta, American and United are willing to assign middle seats if a flight is full. But like Delta, Alaska, JetBlue and Southwest also cap the capacity of their flights and keep seats unassigned.
But make no mistake -- Delta’s strategy of blocking the middle seat isn’t as simple as it seems. The carrier is clearly trying to convince would-be passengers that it's safe to fly with Delta. It's also betting that customer sentiment will last post-vaccine. Delta’s hope is that it’ll be known as the airline that cares about you and your safety above all else — even when the pandemic ends.
Related: Delta to resume China flights as U.S.-China aviation spat cools
And ultimately, if there's demand for a flight and Delta can't add more seats or increase the frequency, the airline is clearly willing to unblock seats, albeit in the safest way possible.