Airlines can't wait to unblock their middle seats

EXCLUSIVE: Delta internal memo quietly "updates" its safety promise before the holidays

It seems irresponsible to cram passengers into a plane at the height of a dangerous pandemic. But over the weekend, JetBlue said it would return to full capacity on Jan. 8. Alaska Airlines is unblocking its middle seats two days earlier.

Some airlines can't wait. Delta Air Lines, which had promised to block middle seats through Jan. 6, just revised its booking policy, according to an internal memo I've obtained. The notice is an important reminder that if you're flying somewhere during the holidays, it may feel a lot like 2019.

What Delta promised

Here's Delta's middle seat promise:

To make space for safer travel, the following temporary changes will be implemented on Delta-operated flights through January 6, 2021:

  • Blocking adjacent seats in First Class on US Domestic flights* 

  • Blocking middle seats on all aircraft in Main Cabin, Delta Comfort+ and Delta Premium Select.

    ...

  • Providing the option to parties of three or more who are traveling together the ability to select a middle seat.

  • Limiting the total number of passengers on board.

"We're adjusting our seat caps slightly to allow a few more customers to be seated"

Here's the memo sent to Delta employees:

MIDDLE SEAT PROMISE/2X2 SEATING UPDATE

With higher travel demand over the coming weeks, we’re adjusting our seat caps slightly to allow a few more customers to be seated where we have the 2-seat configuration. That doesn’t change our middle seat promise, which is meant to avoid squeezing customers between two strangers. On aircraft without middle seats, we also continue to block select aisle seats and limit the total number of customers on board each flight.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that our Marketing team was making some updates to help better set expectations for customers so no one would misinterpret our middle seat block as meaning there would be an open seat next to every customer. With the changes below, there should be fewer instances of customers coming on board not realizing they’re seated next to someone they don’t know in the 2-seat configuration.

Seat Map Update

When customers select their seats, they’re now able to clearly see which seats on board are blocked and which ones are available, indicating they could be seated next to someone. See example below. 

Notifying customers in advance

Customers now also receive this message in their 48 hours from departure email: “Some of our planes don’t have middle seats, so we’ve blocked others. Check the seat map on the Fly Delta app prior to departure to see if seats adjacent to yours are occupied.”

Gate agents will also inform customers they’re sitting next to someone they don’t know and give them the option to move to a different flight if there are no other spaced seats available. 

What this means for you

Delta has been a leader when it comes to pandemic safety. United and American stopped blocking their middle seats months ago. Delta even ribbed its competitors during Halloween, referring to their jampacked flights as “haunted.”

You can't argue with Delta’s plan to offer better passenger notifications. But when nervous customers hear that the airline is "adjusting" its seat caps slightly to "allow a few more customers to be seated," it may not send a reassuring message. At a time like this, you’d expect an airline like Delta to go in the other direction, for the sake of safety.

Yes, there are financial reasons for booking every seat, and everyone understands that. But if passengers expect an empty seat next to them for their holiday trips, shouldn't they get one?

Please do not travel now

At the risk of repeating myself, this is no time to travel. We had 162,346 new COVID-19 infections and 740 deaths yesterday. Many hospitals are at capacity. It doesn't really matter what you think of the pandemic. What do you have to lose by waiting a few months to take your next trip?

So my advice is really simple: Stay home. Avoid all nonessential travel until the danger passes.

Remember, if you run into any problem with canceling your holiday trip, my consumer advocacy organization is ready to help. We won't be intimidated by anyone. We are on your side — and we always will be.

What are your thoughts on Delta's updated blocking policy? Do you feel safe flying during the holidays? The comments are open. Please be kind to each other.

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