United clarifies what it actually means to ‘block middle seats’

May 11, 2020

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As travelers begin to consider flying again, airlines are eager to offer reassurance. Almost all U.S. carriers now require passengers to cover their faces onboard, and Alaska, Delta and Southwest each are capping ticket sales, effectively blocking middle seats, as detailed in my guide outlining distancing-related airline policies.

A number of readers have reached out to note that United, too, is blocking middle seats, referencing an April 29 email from Chief Customer Officer Toby Enqvist, titled “We’re making changes with you in mind”:

UPDATE: United to notify passengers of crowded flights, offer free changes

In the email, Enqvist clearly explains that “We’re automatically blocking middle seats to give you enough space on board,” in a section titled, “Good news for when you choose to fly.”

United’s website provides further reassurance, demonstrating blocked seats on a 3-3 aircraft:

And on a plane with a 1-2 configuration:

Unfortunately, that’s not at all what some customers are finding onboard — in many cases, middle seats are indeed being assigned, despite reassurance from United’s Chief Customer Officer just days ago.

As it turns out, there’s a technicality at play here. United is indeed limiting seat assignments, but only if there are enough seats for everyone to still have one.

Customers who click the link in Enqvist’s email will discover United’s dedicated COVID-19 page, which the airline continues to update. Currently, the page notes that United is making “temporary changes to seat assignments,” explaining that the airline “cannot guarantee that all customers will be seated next to an unoccupied seat.” The airline notes that “We expect to keep these measures in place through May 31.” While middle seats are blocked for pre-selection on all future flights right now, it’s unclear how long that’ll be the case.

Either way, that’s a notable shift from the text in Enqvist’s email, and a United spokesperson acknowledged the adjustment in language, stating: “On many of our customer-facing channels we have made clarifications, and we will continue to do so, to make sure consumers understand the policy. If they have additional questions, we ask that they reach out to us.”

So how’s this playing out? On many flights, passengers are indeed sitting next to an empty seat. But as United continues to consolidate its operations, canceling an unprecedented number of flights in the process, travelers have far fewer options to choose from.

For example, on any given Friday, the airline typically operates up to 17 flights from the New York City area to its hub in Denver (DEN), flying from both LaGuardia Airport (LGA) and Newark (EWR). This Friday, however, the airline is only flying two planes from NYC to Denver; while the original schedule would have enabled onboard distancing, that simply isn’t possible with just two Airbus A319s available to fly passengers.

Some customers will almost certainly not show up, but, with both of Friday’s Newark-Denver flights completely sold out, and no seats being withheld for sale, there’s a good chance the flight load will look similar to what we’re seeing in that Twitter picture up above.

While it’s incredibly challenging for an airline to generate enough revenue to offset the cost of operating a flight without being able to sell most of the seats, some of United’s communications around seat blocking are ambiguous, something that seems to resulted in confusion from some of its customers once onboard.

Many travelers may not feel comfortable traveling inches away from a stranger right now — at least not until more is understand more about the virus and the effectiveness of mandatory mask policies in limiting the spread onboard.

As TPG reiterated last week, it’s not the time for unnecessary travel. But, if you don’t have a choice but to take to the skies,  consider asking a gate agent to rebook you on a new, less-crowded flight if you encounter a plane so full that you have no choice but to sit inches away from someone else. Or consider booking economy travel on an airline that’s truly limiting seat sales, such as Alaska, Delta or Southwest.

Featured image by Zach Honig/TPG.

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