Skip to content

Why some airlines cap the number of seats regardless of social distancing guidelines

June 07, 2020
5 min read
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.

As travel slowly begins to restart, many passengers won't have to worry about being seated in the dreaded middle seat. That's thanks to the social distancing policies we've seen at major airlines.

Some carriers like American and United are simply blocking middle seat assignments, though they aren't going so far as to limit the number of seats they'll sell. On the other hand, Alaska, Delta and JetBlue are both capping the number of seats they sell and blocking seat assignments. Southwest is in the mix too. The airline famously doesn't assign seats, but it's capping seat sales to keep its planes empty enough that the middle seats can be unoccupied.

The latter approach may work well in the short-term as airlines try to convince the flying public that air travel is safe. But it's a money-losing strategy in the long run. Though it's likely just a matter of time until we see major airlines abandon such policies, there are actually some carriers that limit the number of seats on board all year round — even before and well after the coronavirus pandemic. Let's dive into why.

For more travel tips and news, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Two airlines that cap seats year-round

Before the coronavirus pandemic halted travel, I flew to the West Coast for the opening of the Amex Centurion Lounge at LAX. I love trying — and reviewing — new airlines, so I routed myself in a roundabout manner. I flew to Las Vegas, and then from there to San Luis Obispo, California, on Contour Airlines. Later in the trip, I flew from Las Vegas to Burbank, California on JSX, formerly JetSuite X. (Check out my full reviews, and follow my Instagram for some more pics).

Lots of empty space on this Contour E145 (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

I was impressed with both airlines, but there was one similarity between the two that perplexed me. Both flights were operated by the Embraer 145, which is a regional twin-engine jet that can comfortably seat 50 passengers. Though both airlines promised (and delivered) above-average legroom and comfort, I was shocked that both jets had just 30 seats onboard. In effect, the airlines had capped the capacity of their Embraer 145s by 40%!

Extra space before the lavatory on JSX E145 (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Needless to say it was quite strange to see so much room at the bulkhead and behind the last row. Turns out there's a reason for this — and it's not to promote social distancing.

Related: Contour Airlines wants to change your idea of ‘regional carrier’

Why smaller airlines cap the number of seats on their planes

The real reason why these two airlines purposefully fly a plane well below its capacity comes down to U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. Roughly speaking, for FAA certification, most major commercial airlines abide by the FAA Part 121 regulations. These outline the operating rules and regulations for scheduled air carriers, like Delta or United.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Though Contour and JSX operate like a scheduled air carrier, they both classify themselves as air taxi operators. As such, they follow the FAA's Part 135 regulations, which are quite different from Part 121 regulations. One of the biggest passenger-facing implications of flying under Part 135 regulations is that planes must be capped at 30 seats.

Just 30 seats on this Contour Embraer E145 (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

FAA Part 135 regulations are usually used by charter airlines or smaller regional carriers, where the extra expense of maintaining a Part 121 operation wouldn't be cost-effective. For instance, Hawthrone, California-based Advanced Air and Hyannis, Massachusetts-based Cape Air also operate under the FAA Part 135 regulation.

So then why even operate such a big plane in the first place? Turns out, the Embraer 135 and 145 are currently available at low monthly lease rents. With fuel prices as low as they are, these aircraft make good financial sense, particularly as the speed and range let them operate longer, thinner routes, compared to flying a turboprop.

Related: Why airlines work with regional carriers

Bottom line

If you're looking to minimize how many people are onboard your next flight, consider seeking out routes operated by Contour or JSX. That's because they both operate planes that can fit more passengers than they're legally allowed to carry. By choosing to fly under FAA Part 135 regulations, these airlines aren't allowed to fly more than 30 passengers per plane.

When onboard social distancing policies become a relic of the past, you can always look to these small "air taxi operators" as an example of an airline that always caps the number of seats they have on a plane.

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 premium travel card for value
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

1 - 10X points
10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
5xEarn 5x total points on flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
3xEarn 3x points on other travel and dining.
1xEarn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases

Intro offer

80,000 bonus points
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®

Annual Fee

$550

Recommended Credit

740-850
Excellent
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

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
Best premium travel card for value
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10xEarn 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
5xEarn 5x total points on flights through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
3xEarn 3x points on other travel and dining.
1xEarn 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • 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®

    80,000 bonus points
  • Annual Fee

    $550
  • 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
    Excellent

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