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

Jun 7, 2020

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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.

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In This Post

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.

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.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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