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

May 16, 2020

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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.

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