Should US Airlines Keep The Middle Seat Blocked?

One of the most contentious issues surrounding the post-COVID return to flying is whether airlines should be blocking the middle seat. Some used to and don’t anymore, some are still and plan to for some time. Others never did in the first place. Here’s our take on the middle seat issue.

should airlines be blocking the middle seat
In the name of social distancing, should airlines be blocking the middle seat? Photo: Southwest Airlines

Social distancing in flight

When airlines began to raise the idea of social distancing on board aircraft, the industry let out a collective chuckle. With governments around the world mandating separation of around one and a half to two meters, it was plainly obvious that even blocking the middle seat wouldn’t provide an adequate level of personal space.

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Even if blocking the middle seat had made a difference health-wise, it simply doesn’t work economically. Flying with a maximum load factor of 66% just isn’t sustainable for an airline long term. For the major US airlines, the break-even point ranges from 72.5% for Southwest up to 78.9% for American Airlines.

Early on in the crisis, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) tossed out the idea of social distancing onboard, instead recommending mandatory mask-wearing on planes. Despite the recommendation of this leading authority, airlines continued to implement blocked middle seats.

By early May, most of the US airlines had added some form of inflight social distancing. But does it work, and was it really necessary?

should airlines be blocking the middle seat
Along with enhanced cleaning, many airlines implemented a middle seat block. Photo: Delta

Is blocking the middle seat necessary?

Blocking the middle seat is of questionable benefit. It doesn’t provide the minimum recommended separation, and even if there is no immediate neighbor to our side, there are people within a couple of feet to the front and back of us.

Airlines and plane manufacturers have taken great pains to explain how airflow on aircraft works, how frequently air is replenished and how safe the hospital-grade filtration makes the environment. Still, passengers worry, and want to sit away from their fellow travelers.

The idea that traveling by plane is safer with distance has been further reinforced by the proliferation of seat modifications and screen concepts. Experiences on the ground add fuel to the fire, with people accustomed to queuing, eating and moving around with some distance between themselves and others.

Middle seat privacy screens
Social distancing seat modifications have further reinforced the impression that flying is not safe. Photo: Factorydesign

A recent study from MIT showed that yes, there could be an increase to the risk of catching COVID if the middle seat was not blocked. However, the same study also showed that the risk of contracting the virus on a plane is 1 in 7,700 if middle seats are left empty and 1 in 4,300 if middle seats are filled. That’s a super low risk factor, and only goes to illustrate just how safe traveling by plane is right now.

Nevertheless, airlines chose to block the middle seat, regardless of the science. A United spokesperson even admitted to the Financial Times that it was “a PR strategy, not a safety strategy.”

Why were some airlines blocking seats?

Let’s be real here. There’s a world of difference between airlines who are actively blocking middle seats and keeping them blocked, and those which are simply taking advantage of low load factors. Some airlines, such as Delta, have doubled down on their commitment to keeping passengers separated for an even longer period of time. Others, it seems, were only committed until passenger traffic began to pick up.

Both United and American have removed the middle seat block, although they do promise to let passengers know if their flight looks to be nearing capacity. Passengers can also switch to a less busy flight without penalty.

The requirements of the CARES Act funding, which many US airlines received, meant routes and connections had to be maintained to some extent. Frequencies could be trimmed back, hence the hundreds of planes parked up around the country, but the networks themselves had to remain intact.

United Airlines Mask
CARES Act requirements meant airlines had to continue to fly. Photo: United Airlines

This meant many airlines found themselves flying almost empty flights. This in itself is not good for profits or the environment but given the downturn in demand and the CARES Act constraints, it was unavoidable. What was avoidable was the airlines turning this situation into a positive PR campaign for themselves.

Spinning passengers, a line about blocking the middle seat for their benefit is one thing. Taking away that perceived level of care is another. This, it seems, is where the real trouble begins.

How do you un-block a blocked seat?

Passengers quickly grew accustomed to having no neighbor on the flights they took. They took to heart the message that this was for their benefit and was being done because the airlines cared about them. So, when airlines began ‘un-blocking’ that seat and selling every position on the plane, the reaction from the traveling public has been understandably furious about the change.

Both American and United revealed that they would no longer undersell their flights. The response from their passengers was predictably heated.

The issue is not that unblocking the middle seat is wrong. After all, some airlines including Hawaiian, Frontier, Spirit and Allegiant, never blocked it at all, and have been selling full capacity flights right through the crisis. The issue here is the lack of a decent exit strategy and the poor management of passenger expectations.

Dirk Singer, Editor at Aviation Marketing Monthly, believes some airlines have made a rod for their own backs. He told me,

“When introducing a new procedure or rule, one thing any airline should always plan for is what happens when that rule is taken away – especially if it benefits the passenger.

“Here airlines blocked off the middle seat when there was little to no cost in it. But by doing so, they gave consumers the impression that keeping the middle seat free is ‘social distancing’, when as Alan Joyce, Michael O’Leary and others have pointed out, it really isn’t.

“Small wonder that especially in the US, consumers are now upset to suddenly find someone sitting beside them, to the extent that a US Senator is even trying to get the middle seat blocked off by law.

“By not thinking this all the way through and anticipating for the day when they’d again have to sell the middle seat again, many airlines have ended up creating a rod for their own backs.

“Of course, if people are worried by the time they get on board an aircraft, it’s already too late. Any reassurance measures have to happen well before then.”

American Airlines and United will continue to come under fire for selling all their seats. And it’s not because they are the only airline in the world that is doing so – it’s because their PR stunt has been rumbled. The airlines never really actively blocked the middle seat, they simply took advantage of the situation presented to them in order to look good for passengers.

Now, passengers have a choice. Delta, Southwest and JetBlue are all actively blocking middle seats for some weeks to come. Although this will impact their bottom line, they clearly feel it gives them a competitive advantage in the current environment. Passengers don’t need to take the risk, and even if the middle seat block is something of a misnomer, they can book with confidence that they’ll have some space on board.

What’s your opinion? Should airlines still be blocking the middle seat, or should they never have started? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.