Airlines are blocking middle seats. Delta has stopped processing upgrades in advance, handling all upgrades at the gate, to manage seat assignments in domestic first class so that passengers aren’t seated beside each other. They’re also blocking seats near flight attendant jump seats, to keep passengers away from flight attendants.
These are all social distancing steps to limit contact between people during travel, both to help stop the spread of the coronavirus and also to give customers confidence to fly. But they won’t do this if it means losing even a single ticket sale.
One mile at a Time called United’s social distancing a ‘sham’ after the airline announced, “Limiting seat selections in all cabins, so customers won’t be able to select seats next to each other or middle seats where available.”
That’s because this just means passengers won’t be able to select these seats in advance but the airline will still sell or upgrade the full first class cabin, and isn’t reducing capacity of planes at all – they will assign blocked seats at the airport if they have enough passengers on a plane that requires it.
JonNYC writes that American Airlines is taking a similar approach.
.. empty middle seats and empty seats near jump seats (fill the ones furthest first)
However flight is near full or full, seats are all filled no IDB or VDB is used to keep them empty.
— JonNYC (@xJonNYC) April 26, 2020
While overall load factors are low, with schedules reduced to a fraction of what American used to fly some flights actually do fill up.
Passenger who flew on #AmericansAirlines flight from Miami to LaGuardia says she was shocked that the flt was packed full but half the passengers did not wear masks despite #CoronaVirusPandemic@americanairlnes https://t.co/1KnaiZBaho
— HusGid (@HusGid) April 25, 2020
A Miami man has described another nightmarish flight aboard a packed American Airlines plane on which 80 percent of the passengers were not wearing masks after social-distancing measures were violated even at the gate https://t.co/XXg7OApG77
— Mari0 (@maricabowabo) April 25, 2020
When planes are full there’s no social distancing. American isn’t reducing the capacity of their planes they are just not assigning middle seats when planes remain empty.
American says these ‘Z blocks’ do not “guarantee the seats will remain open.” Here’s how American handles blocking. They block alternating middle seats (‘G seats’) around customers, and they block seats around crew jump seats to benefit their employees. However,
If passengers are on a flight needing seat assignments, and there are only blocked middles available, then the airline will assign those blocked middles.
If there are no more blocked middle left, and there are still customers needing a seat assignment, then they will assign seats that have been blocked near jump seats. They start with the seats farthest from jump seats and move forward. If a flight is full they will assign every seat in the cabin.
American’s guidance is explicit, as JonNYC shares, that they will not solicit volunteers and deny boarding to anyone to maintain social distancing in the cabin.