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United clarifies what it actually means to 'block middle seats'

May 11, 2020
5 min read
United clarifies what it actually means to 'block middle seats'
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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.

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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.

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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
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  • Intro Offer
    Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

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  • Annual Fee

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  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
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Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more