Airlines That Block Middle Seats Are Furloughing Fewer Employees

Delta, Southwest, Alaska and JetBlue all limit the number of seats they’ll sell on a flight to varying degrees, promoting some on board social distancing. United, American, Spirit, and Allegiant do not.

On the latest Airlines Confidential podcast, journalist Seth Kaplan makes the case against blocking middle seats.

As a passenger I want the blocked middle seat. On the other hand I totally understand American Airlines’ thinking: look, we just told 19,000 people they’re about to be furloughed. How can we explain to them that we’re not doing everything possible to bring in every penny that we can if we’re under this financial stress?

I simply don’t see the argument that Seth is making here, that an airline is giving up on flying passengers and therefore needs fewer employees because they’re blocking middle seats or otherwise limiting the capacity of each flight. I think what he’s trying to say is that blocked middle seats mean less revenue and less revenue mean more furloughs but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

  • Southwest Airlines is limiting capacity on each flight, and not furloughing employees, while the greatest furloughs are coming from American and United which are selling middle seats. There’s not a clear connection between selling middle seats and protecting jobs, if anything the opposite seems to be the case (even if there’s not direct causality).

  • Airlines that are blocking middle seats don’t seem to be having greater revenue problems than those that aren’t. It’s not the case that their business is fine, while those airlines filling middle seas are hurting, but it’s doesn’t seem to be the case that Southwest and Delta are doing obviously worse than American and United.

  • Limiting the number of seats you’ll sell on each flight means you get to enough demand more quickly either for a second flight (which means more employees flying) or a larger plane (which at least may mean more cabin crew).

There’s no clear connection between blocking middle seats and a need to furlough airline employees. If anything there’s an effect in the opposite direction.

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. It needs to noted that all but two Delta workgroups are non-union. The non-union employees have had their hours and therefore pay cut by 25%. That along with voluntary packages is how Delta has been largely avoiding furloughing. The CARED act only said rates of pay not hours which Delta has been taking advantage of.

  2. I think a lot of people would pay more for a guarantee empty middle seat due to both have a bit of extra protection from a sick person and to have more personable space. A coach seat with an empty seat next to you is a huge benefit, more so than extra leg space, food, etc.

  3. I think this is more a function of the number of employees that took early-outs. And those numbers were higher where the package was richer (Delta and Southwest). So little revenue is being generated these days that blocking/no blocking middle seats isn’t going to drive furlough decisions.

  4. This is the dumbest article I have read today. They also have fewer actual employees. Not DL and B7 have some of the lowest passenger rates. AA is carrying the most passengers outside of China (and they lie) and personally, haven’t been on an AA flight with a middle seat occupied that wasn’t traveling with a group or family of 3 or more.

  5. Sunviking82’s statement is the stupidest thing I read today. Who has fewer employees? “Not DL and B7 have some of”-that doesn’t make any sense. Actually not much of what sunviking82 wrote makes any sense.

  6. @Been There – AGREE COMPLETELY! With limited travel Gary and the other blogs are either recycling all the “why you need to have xxx card” articles or throwing out click bait topics to generate hits and keep their site relevant.

    I was a math/statistics major years ago (along with computer science) but it doesn’t request someone trained in statistics to quickly recognize there is little, if any, cause and effect between blocking middle seat and layoffs. American actually has a higher load factor than several of the airlines that block middle seats so that should mean fewer layoffs.

    As @Been There stated, it is all about the buyout packages (SW was especially generous) along with concerns people at AA (especially) have about taking packages that may not be honored in bankruptcy court. Also, I’m not sure all the airlines are at upfront yet with the total number of layoffs they will have in Q4 2020.

    Let the dust settle and see where things stand by Q3 2021 then you will have a much better picture of the overall number of employees across all airlines that will be let go. Here’s a preview – it will be a huge number since business travel likely won’t get back to the level it was in 2019 for years, if ever, and that was the major revenue driver for all airlines.

  7. You forgot NK is not furloughing any of their 4500 +- FAs and none of their pilots will be furloughed . All bases were offered different time off packages ( from 3 months to 6 months or month to month as company needs dictate )
    Even the most junior FAs and pilots , some of whom graduated from initial training in April have a job.

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