Airlines Can’t Make Money With Social Distancing, But They Can’t Make Money Without It

Air Travel is down over 85% year-over-year, and that’s even with a slow but steady pickup of passenger travel since the bottom in mid-April. As a result airlines have parked large portions of their fleets, they’ve retired entire aircraft types, and they are flying substantially reduced schedules – though those schedules are gradually picking up a little, too.

Passengers keep complaining on social media that planes are too full. Airlines, which are considered essential businesses, have continued to fly throughout the pandemic – and have even been required to do so in exchange for government bailout funds. They aren’t subject to social distancing orders.

JetBlue is blocking middle seats through July 4. Delta is only loading coach cabins to 60% of capacity, and first class to half capacity. American is taking a more relaxed approach, capping (most) flights so that they don’t have to assign half of middle seats. There’s no problem with households sitting together in middle seats of course.

United Airlines doesn’t even go that far. United says if you don’t like a full plane, don’t fly and they’ll try to let you know in advance so you can make the decision before coming to the airport. (They won’t give you a refund, of course, just a voucher towards future travel you may not be comfortable with either.)

On the one hand there’s just not going to be social distancing on planes. Blocking the middle seat still has passengers in front of you and behind you – and a mere foot and a half to the side. But it makes people more comfortable, and people need to be more comfortable in order to return to travel. Air travel is a lot safer than people think but they need to feel safe and not all airlines are helping people do that.

On the other hand many people will stay away from flying precisely because there’s not going to be social distancing on planes, and they do not feel safe. Airlines can’t make money blocking all middle seats but they can’t make money until we decide we’re done with the need to block middle seats.

Delta seems to have decided, for now, it’s better to convince customers to come back – and come back to Delta. United seems to me to have decided, across all manner of decisions, that they will take any money they can now and not worry about the future.

If you want an empty middle seat on American or United, or on any airline after the short-term commitment to limit capacity lapses, buy one. Or fly private. Or don’t travel by air. And it’s the fact that this is even a decision is why airlines won’t recover for some time.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. You have to remember Gary, for every person posting on social media some idiotic attention grabbing rant.

    There are 9,999 of us who don’t feel that way.
    We get on the plane, sit down, shut up, fly where we want to go.

    You are giving credit only to the most extreme viewpoint.
    Which admittedly is all social media and blogs and the news are anymore.

    But, uhm, most of us don’t care.
    We aren’t outraged, and we’re sick and tired of stories of one stupid keyboard warrior claiming to know how the rest of us feel.

    This keyboard activist worship has to stop, it’s embarrassing to our country – and hints at a dumbed down intellectual and cognitive ability that I worry might never come back.

    We’ve got to do better than take some idiots on the internet as representative of normal people.
    Most of us don’t care – we just don’t tell people that online….

  2. George has some major issues if he thinks the majority of people aren’t concern.

    The airlines are pretty screwed because only a small minority of people will travel without a vaccine or better treatment. The rest of the people won’t travel or will only travel on very limited trips. There are probably 20-30% of the people that used to travel often that will continue to travel at the same rate. Most others aren’t willing to accept various risks (getting sick, getting stuck in a forced quarantine, getting stuck in a lock down country, etc.).

    For most people, especially under 50 and healthy the illness is usually not bad but it can last quite a while even among those people.

  3. We flew DEN-PHX yesterday. The plane got to over 70% full and United actually added an A320 leaving 30 minutes later and moved people to that flight. The new flight went out with 50 PAX. The UC agents said they had added flights or used 777 on routes Intended for single aisle aircraft several times out of DEN that day.

  4. @george
    +1, you are 100 pct rigjht
    All kind if twitter celebrities wannabe are polluting with their stupidity
    What is wrong with george’s commemt?

  5. Gary I agree with you 100%. The airlines are losing $50. million a day. If you want a middle seat open buy a second seat, charter a flight or don’t fly.

  6. @rich – that is YOUR decision and you are free to make it but don’t try to shame or otherwise blame others for wanting to travel.

    Frankly, I have no problem flying with respect to the virus. I trust the air filtration system and agree it is pretty safe flying (even without the masks but those are, unfortunately, required for the next few months). Also, the CDC came out this week stating it was not high risk to get the virus from touching surfaces. That being said I do use hand santizer and try to avoid touching my face.

    My issue with travel has nothing to do with actual concerns getting the virus – it is the overall crappy experience I have an issue with. I’m retired, love to travel, have flexibility (and funds) to cover a situation where I’m quarantined but have a real issue with the current travel experience.

    I traveled somewhere at least once a month (had to cancel trips to Germany, Dallas and New Orleans in last few months due to Pandemic) and look forward to traveling again. However, my next flight is late September when I’m hoping some of the more extreme measures have been relaxed. No Rich there won’t be a vaccine by then and you are just fine staying home. However, I’m a healthy 62 year old and, like George, with GLADLY get on a plane as soon as the overall experience is a little less miserable!

  7. @AC, as another healthy over 60 (haven’t missed a day of work in nearly 10 years due to illness), I too want to travel, and I believe that flying is safe. But as you allude to, right now lots of things I would want to do at a destination are closed. If there is little to see or do (except perhaps under extreme restrictions), why go there? I’ll be monitoring openings, and continue to practice advised safety procedures whether or not I travel, but hope to back in their sometime this summer.

  8. Catch 22. I predict that by the fall the middle seat debate and social distancing on aircraft will be moot. Those who are comfortable flying under pre-covid conditions minus any service at all and higher fares will do so. The rest will stay at home or drive.

  9. This is a very short term problem. There will be no social distancing on airplanes in 60 days. The economics don’t really work, and there’s no science to support it. For the moment, some airlines are (wisely) just pandering to fear. As the virus fears recede, more people will get comfortable with flying under the normal conditions. This isn’t rocket science.

  10. @chopsticks
    And yet here we are agreeing again
    Unfortunately most people do not understand it, although you are 100 Pct correct
    There will still be social media idiots who post pictures of full “scary” planes just to get attention

  11. America is a cesspool of infected people and over 100,000 real deaths (look at incremental deaths from average, which is the only good number) vs. Taiwan or Korea or even China because of people not understandimg that when there’s a virus there’s a new normal and you’re screwed no matter what — either a little (prevent its spreading) or a lot (allow it to spread).

    Delta gets it, unlike doesn’t-know-history George. George, it’s because of people like you that the economy is tanking more than it would otherwise. Instead of cutting our losses, they’re being extended.

  12. @Amy

    The US was never going to be able to extinguish the virus the way Taiwan and Korea could. Both of those countries had past experiences with respiratory viruses that helped them prepare for this one. They are also far smaller, have fewer ports of entry and have higher levels of trust in government. As for China, do you really want the US to respond to problems the way a totalitarian state does? It seems like many Americans actually would. The lockdown was supposed to help “flatten the curve” so that hospitals would not be overwhelmed. It was not expected to reduce the total number of infections over time unless a vaccine were to be broadly available very soon. A lockdown increases the risk of a second wave by preventing herd immunity through viral spread among the young and healthy. Even Gov. Andrew “save every life” Cuomo has changed his tune to “people are going to die” (they’ve already been dying thanks to his order sending sick patients into nursing homes). Are you going to wet your bed at home until some day in the (perhaps distant) future when a vaccine becomes available? You are free to do so. I don’t see why you should prevent others from going on with their lives like rational adults.

  13. I am actually less concerned about someone sitting in the row behind or in front of me. Seat backs are tall enough to provide a meaningful physical barrier. On the other hand, people sitting next to you in the same row create a far more uncomfortable situation. That is why it is in everyone’s interest to find a way to fly with blocked middle seat.

  14. I choose not to fly as long as the virus is widespread. You won’t find me endorsing or complaining about specific airline policies because there simply is no airline policy that will entice me to fly until the virus diminishes. (And I used to fly a lot before the virus arrived.)

  15. Honestly, I have been on 13 American flights (most of mine are two flights to get to one place) since March 11 and the last one, #13, was the first time I had someone next to me. That was surprising, but not bothersome because I bought a ticket and got on a plane, and if I wasn’t willing for that to happen, then I shouldn’t have put my butt in the seat. For Pete’s sake. I could get the virus driving and stopping in a mini-market to grab a Coke, or in an airplane, less likely with Hepa filters, more work to fly in general. Or doing a million things. I am not going to stop living. I stayed home for six weeks between March 20 and the second week of May, and those were the most miserable weeks of my life. I also had to go to the grocery store and pharmacy–and doctor–in that time. I could have gotten sick then too. The virus isn’t going to vanish anymore than the flu has (yes, I know “this is not the flu”; however, ironically, in my own state, more people were both hospitalized AND died from the flu than coronavirus yet that never got reported. I had to search CDC and the health department. myself). And just tonight I read a study in a European med journal published 5/13 about an asymptomatic carrier who exposed 455 people to coronavirus. Those 455 people were monitored. ZERO of them actually contracted it. So again, I buy my ticket, I get on the plane, and I take the same precautions as always. Hand sanitizer, wipes, hand washing–stuff I have always done since the first time I realized I got sick on a plane years ago and why. And I have not since. I will admit that I have paid for a couple first class tickets in this season, but not for 500 mile and fewer trips where I knew as an elite member I would likely be upgraded (I have been), so I have been in first for every trip either way. That is a choice I have made as an extra precaution. If you don’t want to sit next to someone, don’t fly. Don’t get on a plane, tweet about how unsafe you feel, and milk the attention you get on the news, though. Good grief. We all have choices.

    PS Sorry for my novel! (Some of those people earlier this week were really too much–esp that woman who literally joined twitter just to get attention and media coverage over how “unsafe” she felt)

  16. I wonder if the people that complain are the same people that walk around stores, go to bars or the beach without face masks or any concern for social distancing.

    I was at a Home Depot yesterday because a $5 part could not be delivered, only picked up. No curb side: in store, in a line for the service desk. 90% of people had no face masks and did not practice any social distancing, store staff included. People have gone tired of being careful and are like ostriches with their head in the sand…

  17. @Suz & George

    I live in the Midwest and have been flying in April and it’s very enjoyable since the flights and airports are uncrowded. Thankfully Delta is adding back more flights in mid June. It’s a bit hard to put together a decent itinerary right now but United still has a surprising number of convenient connections out of O’Hare
    Honestly, rather than buy 2 seats, upgrade to first class for about the same price. For people traveling for work your organization can certainly afford that if they need you to travel,

  18. I’m not worried I’ll fly either way. I just hope that they don’t continue to cut back on meal services, and that they stop trying to force customers and flight attendants to wear masks.

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