Skip to content

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

May 16, 2020
4 min read
United's latest onboard distancing policy won't cost the airline a cent
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.

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.

Sign up for our daily newsletter
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 image by Basic

Top offers from our partners

How we chose these cards

Our points-obsessed staff uses a plethora of credit cards on a daily basis. If anyone on our team wouldn’t recommend it to a friend or a family member, we wouldn’t recommend it on The Points Guy either. Our opinions are our own, and have not been reviewed, approved, or endorsed by our advertising partners.
See all best card offers

TPG featured card

Best for earning alternative rewards for travel purchases
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
3 / 5
Go to review
Apply for Credit One Bank Wander® Card
at Credit One Bank's secure site

Rewards

1 - 10X points
10XEarn 10x points on eligible hotels and car rentals booked through the Credit One Bank travel partner site
5XEarn 5x points on eligible travel, dining, and gas
1XEarn 1x points on all other purchases

Intro offer

Earn 10,000 Bonus Points
Earn 10,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on eligible purchases in the first 90 days and redeem for a $100 statement credit, gift cards, or travel

Annual Fee

$95

Recommended Credit

Fair/Good
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.

Why We Chose It

The revamped Wander Card from Credit One Bank earns cardmembers up to 10 points per dollar spent on eligible travel purchases. With no foreign transaction fees, the card is also great for international travel. However, points earned from this card can only be used at a fixed value, so it may not be the best option for those striving to get maximum value from their rewards.

Pros

  • This card has no foreign transaction fees and earns up to 10 points per dollar on travel purchases through the Credit One Bank travel partner site.

Cons

  • While cardholders can earn a significant amount of points on travel purchases, there isn't any way to redeem points from the Wander Card for maximum value (beyond 1 cent per point).
  • Earn 10,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on eligible purchases in the first 90 days and redeem for a $100 statement credit, gift cards, or travel
  • Earn 10x points on eligible hotels and car rentals booked through the Credit One Bank travel site
  • Earn 5x points on eligible travel, dining, and gas
  • Earn 1x points on all other purchases
  • Redeem your reward points for statement credits, gift cards, merchandise, flights, hotels, and more
  • With $0 Fraud Liability, you won’t be responsible for unauthorized charges
  • Free Online Credit Score and Credit Report summary, terms apply
  • If you are a Covered Borrower under the Military Lending Act, you may get a different offer
  • See Rates & Fees
Apply for Credit One Bank Wander® Card
at Credit One Bank's secure site
Terms & restrictions apply. See rates & fees
Best for earning alternative rewards for travel purchases
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
3 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10XEarn 10x points on eligible hotels and car rentals booked through the Credit One Bank travel partner site
5XEarn 5x points on eligible travel, dining, and gas
1XEarn 1x points on all other purchases
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 10,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on eligible purchases in the first 90 days and redeem for a $100 statement credit, gift cards, or travel

    Earn 10,000 Bonus Points
  • Annual Fee

    $95
  • 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.

    Fair/Good

Why We Chose It

The revamped Wander Card from Credit One Bank earns cardmembers up to 10 points per dollar spent on eligible travel purchases. With no foreign transaction fees, the card is also great for international travel. However, points earned from this card can only be used at a fixed value, so it may not be the best option for those striving to get maximum value from their rewards.

Pros

  • This card has no foreign transaction fees and earns up to 10 points per dollar on travel purchases through the Credit One Bank travel partner site.

Cons

  • While cardholders can earn a significant amount of points on travel purchases, there isn't any way to redeem points from the Wander Card for maximum value (beyond 1 cent per point).
  • Earn 10,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on eligible purchases in the first 90 days and redeem for a $100 statement credit, gift cards, or travel
  • Earn 10x points on eligible hotels and car rentals booked through the Credit One Bank travel site
  • Earn 5x points on eligible travel, dining, and gas
  • Earn 1x points on all other purchases
  • Redeem your reward points for statement credits, gift cards, merchandise, flights, hotels, and more
  • With $0 Fraud Liability, you won’t be responsible for unauthorized charges
  • Free Online Credit Score and Credit Report summary, terms apply
  • If you are a Covered Borrower under the Military Lending Act, you may get a different offer
  • See Rates & Fees