No More Blocked Seats: Delta Air Lines Lifts Load Factor Caps

As of Saturday, May 1st, Delta has resumed selling all of its seats onboard its aircraft. The last major airline to institute load factor caps in all cabin classes on every aircraft, Delta has now joined its peers in booking its flights full. An improving public health situation combined with a growing airline recovery has led Delta to finally sell all seats on its planes after a year of blocking seats.

Delta Boeing 757
Delta Air Lines is now selling middle seats after a year of blocking them. Photo: Getty Images

Delta is no longer blocking middle seats

At the end of March, Delta announced that it would no longer block seats onboard its aircraft starting May 1st. After sticking to the policy for around a year as it sought to portray itself as a public health-focused carrier, the airline decided that it wanted to offer more capacity this summer as it brought more of its planes back.

Passengers will still need to wear a face mask. The only exemptions are for children under the age of two or those with disabilities to complete a “Clearance-to-Fly” process before departure. Not complying with the mask mandate can lead to fines, punishments, and the possibility to have your travel privileges suspended.

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While Delta will sell all seats, passengers may find some emptier flights where middle seats may go out empty. Photo: Getty Images

Delta, however, has made some exceptions to its policy. One of the most notable exceptions came over Easter weekend when the airline filled up some middle seats in the wake of high-profile cancellations.

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Why Delta lifted its middle seat block

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian framed the discussion around ending the middle seat block as following the guidance of public health and getting customer feedback. He stated the following on the airline’s first-quarter earnings call:

“We are aligning with the recommendations of health professionals and government officials who continue to ensure the safe and effective distribution of vaccines and listening to our customers.

“Based on our survey work, 75% of our customers expect to be vaccinated by Memorial Day. With improving demand and vaccine trends, we announced that we’ll start selling middle seats May the 1st, providing a powerful tool for improving our financial performance.”

Of course, as is common in the airline industry, one of the bigger motivations behind ending the middle seat block was to capture revenue and cut losses.

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The sunset of the middle seat block is especially beneficial for capacity through Delta’s hubs, like Atlanta, Detroit, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City. Photo: Getty Images

Sunsetting the middle seat block is giving Delta the option to add new capacity at a marginal cost. It is much cheaper and easier to sell all seats on a plane than finding a free plane and placing it into service to capture additional demand.

With the end of the middle seat block, according to Delta’s President Glen Hauenstein, the carrier’s sellable capacity increases from 46% of 2019 levels in April to 67% of 2019 levels in June. With this, the airline expects to see sequential revenue improvements, with June quarter revenues expected to be approximately $2 billion higher than first-quarter revenues.

He later stated in the earnings call that, in March, Delta lost approximately $100 to $150 million in gross revenue with the block of the middle seat in place. This was not a material loss, but revenue that spilled over because Delta did not sell the capacity to cater to passengers looking to book.

No More Blocked Seats: Delta Air Lines Lifts Load Factor Caps
As Delta brings its planes back, it does not have many spare jets left to add new flights to cover for the middle seat block. Photo: Getty Images.

While Delta had blocked seats in premium cabins, it, in 2020, sunsetting its load factor caps in select premium cabins. This applies to twin-aisle Delta One cabins, such as the Delta One Suites onboard the Airbus A350, the reverse herringbone product on the Airbus A330ceos, and the Delta One seats on the Boeing 767-400ERs.

Only one carrier left blocking middle seats

Alaska Airlines is the last carrier in the US to still block seats on flights, although not in all cabin classes. Only on the carrier’s extra-legroom economy product, branded as “Premium Class,” will passengers find open middle seats. There are no blocked seats in Alaska’s first or economy class products.

Alaska Boeing 737
Alaska Airlines is blocking seats in select cabins. Photo: Getty Images

All other airlines sunset middle seat blocks in 2020 or else early 2021. American and United had early on ended load factor caps, while other carriers extended them a few months at a time. Most carriers started to remove them when it became clear that they were spilling over revenue.

Are you glad to see Delta sunset the middle seat block? Let us know in the comments!