JetBlue will cap bookings through the holidays — without promising empty middle seats

Sep 29, 2020

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Airlines are preparing for a holiday season that’ll be unlike any other.

In pre-COVID times, the period between Thanksgiving and New Years has been one of the busiest for leisure travelers visiting family and friends.

In 2020, well, things will look different. Airlines aren’t exactly sure how many people are ready to take to the skies. In fact, the major U.S. carriers are promoting the comprehensiveness of their onboard and airport cleaning programs to help drum up confidence in flying. Plus, we’re beginning to see carriers incentivize bookings with limited-time promotions and fare sales.

Now, with the holiday season fast approaching, airlines are updating one component of their onboard safety campaigns: the promise to block middle seats on every flight.

The latest change comes from New York-based JetBlue. The carrier has quietly updated its seat-blocking policy for flights through the holiday season.

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Currently, JetBlue is blocking all middle seats through Oct. 15 on its Airbus A320 family of planes (and aisle seats on its smaller Embraer E190s).

But beginning Oct. 16 and running through at least Dec. 1 — the Tuesday after Thanksgiving — the carrier will be capping its jets at less than 70% of capacity.

Middle seats won’t necessarily be empty after Oct. 15 (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

That means an empty middle seat is no longer a guarantee. For families or friends traveling together, JetBlue will have some rows with all seats available for selection.

For example, if the carrier sells its 100-seater Embraer E190 to just under 70% capacity, that means there will be 69 passengers onboard. The plane is arranged in a 2-2 configuration, spread across 25 rows. If there aren’t enough parties traveling together in groups of two or more, then odds are you’ll be seated next to a stranger. Of course, the situation will vary depending on flight loads.

You’re also no longer guaranteed an empty adjacent seat in the carrier’s Mint business-class cabin. Currently, Mint is capped at ten of the 16 seats — all aisle seats are blocked for distancing. However, beginning Oct. 16, JetBlue will only block the two aisles in row 1 to promote space between customers and flight attendants.

Related: Guide to which U.S. airlines are blocking middle seats

Going forward, Mint can therefore be booked to 14 of the 16 available seats. So unless you’re traveling as a couple or can snag a solo seat in row 2 or 4 (or the windows in row 1), you’ll be seated next to a stranger.

JetBlue Mint is arranged in an alternating 1-1, 2-2 configuration (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

If you’re not traveling as a group, JetBlue promises to continue to work “behind the scenes” to seat parties together and provide space between for those not traveling together. As such, your seat assignment may be modified by the airline before departure to ensure optimal distancing for everyone. Just note that due to an above-average number of no-shows, some seat assignments will likely change just minutes before departure.

According to a spokesperson, “in the rare instances where the seating isn’t working out, we’ll work through those on a case-by-case basis.”

But what happens after Dec. 1, as we approach the Christmas and New Year’s holidays?

Well, the carrier is promising the less than 70% cap through at least Dec. 1. According to a JetBlue spokesperson, “throughout the holidays, we’ll monitor demand and continue to limit capacity onboard” with the ultimate goal of “minimiz[ing] situations where a customer may be seated next to someone they don’t know.”

After Oct. 15, you should consider purchasing an extra seat if you want to guarantee additional space onboard JetBlue flights. The carrier makes the booking process easy. Simply add an additional adult to your booking and check “This is an empty seat” when you begin filling out the passenger details.

Related: How to buy a second seat for yourself on US airlines

Tuesday’s policy change comes as JetBlue becomes one of the first major U.S. carriers to begin offering promotions for holiday bookings. Through Sept. 30, customers can receive $50 off per person on holiday flights or $300 off JetBlue Vacations bookings for travel from Nov. 19, 2020, to Jan. 5, 2021. Simply use promo code “HOLIDAYS” when booking at jetblue.com/promo.

JetBlue’s Airbus A321neo (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

JetBlue’s move to unblock every middle seat follows similar policy changes by its competitors.

In mid-September, Southwest announced that it will continue capping the capacity of its jets through Nov. 30. The Dallas-based airline hasn’t yet announced whether its policy will extend through the December holidays. Alaska Airlines is also limiting the number of travelers on its flights through Nov. 30.

Delta is blocking seats through Jan. 6. Like JetBlue, the Atlanta-based airline is raising its capacity cap for flights. On Oct. 1, the number of passengers allowed in coach jumps from 60% to 75%. Plus, the airline will book the Delta One business-class cabin on its wide-body jets to full capacity starting Oct. 1.

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

American Airlines and United Airlines notably are not blocking seats or capping bookings. Both say that other measures, from enhanced cleaning procedures to mandating all travelers wear masks, keep flyers safe from COVID-19. In a way, they’re right — blocking middle seats is likely more about making travelers comfortable to fly than protection against the virus.

Nonetheless, JetBlue just became the latest carrier to continue capping the capacity of its flights through the start of the holiday season. Just note that even though the carrier will try its best to keep middle seats blocked between strangers, it’s no longer a guarantee.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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