How Social Distancing Really Works On Planes Now (It Doesn’t Always)

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.

While overall load factors are low, with schedules reduced to a fraction of what American used to fly some flights actually do fill up.

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.

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. if masks are required is distancing even needed (i know it’s not a requirement now)

    moreover – what’s the literature on spread of this in airplane cabins? we’ve seen restaurants, buses, but nothing on 5 or more people getting infected from the same flight. seems odd given how much personal info is available about every flier.

  2. The whole idea of social distancing on a plane is ridiculous. If a person sitting in 27c has the virus, there is no way that the person sitting in 27a can get to and from their seat without being in close contact to the surfaces of 27c harbouring the virus – with or without 27b being occupied. Like O’Leary said “idiotic”.

  3. Solution: drive! Can’t drive? Stay home! Flying this days is just suicidal. When everybody is in a confined cabin with recirculated air no social distance or mask will help. One should avoid flying at all costs.
    Flight attendants and pilots deserve a medal…
    Let’s not flying out of respect for those who absolutely must fly for work. Avoiding crowding airplanes for leisure or pure travel pleasure these days is a moral imperative.

  4. @liz – the air is ciculated through a HEPA filter – are you curious why with so much personal information about each passenger we haven’t had reports of an outbreak with origins traced to a flight somewhere in the world – especially considering how many from Wuhan evacuated by air in the early days.

  5. Question, and I do not have the answer. If there were only three flights available the day you were traveling to DFW and the one you were on had middle seats open. One of the three flights canceled and now your flight is full would you still travel on that flight that now became full?

  6. The FAA needs to do something. I don’t care if prices need to be raised, but it’s dangerous to sit people within 6 feet of each other for hours at a time.

    Masks that are below PPE-certified grade (i.e. what we’re all wearing because the actual PPE masks are mostly reserved for our healthcare heroes) are little more than placebo. The only proven effective measure is physical distancing. The greedy airlines must be regulated to enforce distancing and keep people as safe as possible.

  7. Those planes need to fly full now, or airline employees lose their jobs in October.

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