Social distancing on Delta: blocked middle seats and no automatic upgrades

Apr 8, 2020

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There are very few reasons to get on a plane right now. (Seriously, if you don’t absolutely have to, please stay home and help flatten the curve.)

If for some reason you do need to fly somewhere — like if you’re a medical professional going to lend a hand in a city that’s reaching its COVID-19 peak — you can expect some changes to the normal procedures if you happen to be traveling on Delta.

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The airline will be blocking middle seats, pausing automatic upgrade for Medallion members, and limiting the number of customers on each flight.

Related: Your guide to airline elite status during the coronavirus outbreak.

That last part, limiting the number of customers, may not be particularly hard to do with demand for travel currently historically low across the industry. There have been numerous reports in recent weeks of flights with just a handful of passengers. Southwest even tweeted about one of its own flights that had just one customer onboard.

The other steps it’s taking show how seriously Delta views its own role in assisting its passengers with their social distancing efforts.

“In the latest move to ensure we’re keeping people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, Delta is taking steps to help customers and employees practice social distancing on the ground and in the air in keeping with current health-expert recommendations,” the airline said in a statement.

Related: Delta joins American and United in slashing New York flights.

Blocked middle seats, which qualify as business class on intra-European flights, would be a boon to passengers in normal times. Not being squished between two fellow travelers is a baseline goal for most — and an important one these days, when physical proximity can contribute to the spread of the new coronavirus. But coupled as it is with an unprecedented demand slump, the announcement of this extra space policy comes with an unusual pall.

Related: Delta Air Lines, pilots spar over cost savings as revenues plummet.

The pause to automatic upgrades may generally be less welcome news for travelers, but Delta assured elite flyers they will still be eligible for free seats up front based on their status priority. But those assignments now will be processed at the gate and will be limited in number as the airline tries to maintain distance between customers onboard.

Read more: The TSA screened less than 100,000 people on Tuesday.

Delta said it can still accommodate families and others who wish to sit directly next to their travel companions. Those passengers are encouraged to contact reservations or speak to their gate agent before boarding.

In addition to the onboard measures, Delta has modified its boarding procedures and has implemented other practices to meet its social distancing responsibilities. Among the changes: Boarding customers 10 at a time and “reminding them to add extra space as they board.” More information about the plans can be found in the airline’s statement.

Another change: Delta will now distribute snacks during boarding — instead of inflight — for departures from Boston (BOS), Raleigh-Durham (RDU) and Salt Lake City (SLC). Delta announced that move in a memo to employees reviewed by TPG, saying it was part of an effort to reduce flight attendants’ points of physical contact with customers.

Edward Russell contributed reporting. 

Featured photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy.

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