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.