United’s latest onboard distancing policy won’t cost the airline a cent

May 16, 2020

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Update 6/29/20: As of July 1, United will no longer apply capacity restrictions for non-revenue passengers.

Alaska, Delta and Southwest continue to block middle seats (or their equivalent) for sale, guaranteeing passengers a bit more space onboard. Of course, as more passengers begin to return to the skies, capping ticket sales comes at a tremendous cost — on what would be an otherwise full flight, carriers are looking at a 33% revenue hit.

United Airlines, meanwhile, has taken a creative approach to enabling distancing, blocking middle seats for pre-selection but not sale — in other words, if a flight is sold to capacity, every seat will go out full.

United's latest initiative should further limit the number of passengers traveling in middle seats. Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.
United’s latest initiative should further limit the number of passengers traveling in middle seats. Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

Following widespread customer backlash, in response to the carrier’s ambiguous policy, United recently began allowing customers to make free changes if they’re booked on a flight where more than 70% of passengers have checked in.

Now, the airline is further enabling a bit more space, with another policy that won’t cost the carrier a cent.

According to a memo shared internally on Saturday, if any flight has a load factor above 70%, United will no longer board any Non-Revenue Space-Available (NRSA) passengers hoping to travel using their pass privileges from May 19 through at least June 30.

Despite stay-at-home orders remaining in effect in many states, and an almost-nonexistent ability to travel internationally, nonrevenue passengers do in fact appear to be attempting to fly. For example, even this afternoon’s short hop from Newark (EWR) to Washington (IAD) — a trip that could likely be made more safely in less than four hours by car — already has well over a dozen travelers on the standby list.

As United explains:

“It may seem counterintuitive: as we all know, travel demand has declined dramatically over the last few months and even though we have reduced our schedule by 90%, the vast majority of our flights are less than half full. However, because our schedule is so reduced, there are a small number of flights where our customers are finding planes fuller than they expect, especially on hub-to-hub routes. In fact, last week we had about 4% of our flights with revenue passenger load factors over 70% and if you count standby travelers, that goes up to 8%. This temporary change is also in line with some of our industry peers, who have instituted similar NRSA travel restrictions.”

In an effort to avoid disruptions as a result of this new policy, the airline will also temporarily book commuting pilots and flight attendants as “positive space” travelers, through June 30, guaranteeing them a seat onboard. Additionally, gate agents will do their best to avoid seating nonrevenue passengers in the middle, or in other restricted seats on smaller aircraft that don’t have middle seats.

United’s latest policy will further enable gate agents to avoid assigning “blocked” middle seats.

While this policy may not have negative financial implications for United, it’s sure to impact morale among some employees. Pilots, flight attendants, airport agents and many other workers continue to face the brunt of the airline-related fallout from this pandemic, and many more U.S. carrier jobs may be on the line soon, after the CARES Act expires this fall.

There is a small silver lining here, though. United notes that the airline’s been “upgauging” 35-40 flights each day. If the Network Planning and Operations teams notice flights with higher load factors far enough in advance, they may choose to swap in larger planes, to enable more space onboard. United recommends that employees waitlist themselves for any given flight at least 48 hours in advance, to give the airline a better idea of how many flyers might be planning to travel.

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases within the first three months of card membership. Plus, earn a $200 statement credit after your first Delta purchase within the first three months. Offer ends 7/28/21.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles after spending $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months and a $200 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase with your new Card within your first 3 months. Offer expires 7/28/2021.
  • Limited Time Offer: Plus, get a 0% intro APR on purchases for 12 months from the date of account opening, then a variable 15.74%-24.74%. Offer expires 7/28/2021.
  • Accelerate your path to Medallion Status, with Status Boost®. Plus, in 2021 you can earn even more bonus Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) to help you reach Medallion Status.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Intro APR on Purchases
0% on purchases for 12 months
Regular APR
15.74%-24.74% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Recommended Credit
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.