United Airlines Won’t Block Middle Seats, Here’s How To Protect Yourself From COVID-19

Delta and American Airlines are limiting the number of seats they’ll sell on each flight, to give customers confidence they can travel without having another passenger squeezed up next to them in a middle seat. United is not doing this, and says if you don’t want to be crammed in next to someone else then don’t take the flight.

American, for its part, reversed course on an earlier policy just blocking seats and placed limits on seats for sale through the end of May. There are still flights with more passengers than that from earlier sales, but the number of no shows at this point means they don’t even usually need volunteers for denied boarding.

Frontier Airlines for its part offered blocked middle seats for $39 and was shamed for ‘selling safety’. They reversed policy. But Frontier’s approach was much better than United’s.

United has been shamed on social media for occasional crammed planes – most planes go out with few passengers, but having reduced flying over 90% some do wind up full.

The airline has announced a new policy. They won’t limit sales of seats on planes. Instead, If you don’t want someone in a middle seat next to you, you don’t have to fly.

  • Through June 30 when a passenger’s flight will be over 70% full United will try to contact them 24 hours in advance.

  • Customers will have the option not to travel, and either to reschedule or take a credit.

If United doesn’t contact customers 24 hours out, they’ll wind up going to the airport and through security anyway only to find out their flight is full. The option to ‘reschedule’, given reduced number of flights, may not even mean traveling later the same day. And if it does it could mean spending several more hours at the airport.

United isn’t promising customers on board social distancing. They’re promising that if you want social distancing you should probably fly someone else.

How much does this matter? It’s somewhat unclear.

  • Most spread seems to happen in closed quarters with prolonged contact with someone who is infected, including right before they start showing symptoms. That seems to described packed planes.

  • What we’ve seen from reports of office and restaurant spread is that people emit smaller amounts of the virus just talking over long periods of time, and air carries the particals, which explains a lot of why prolonged indoor contact matters.

  • Airlines have HEPA filters on mainline aircraft (though not necessarily smaller regionals). These filter out most virus particles. That’s not going to mean as much if you’re seated right beside someone with the virus, since particles seem likely to reach you before being filtered.

  • Seat backs may serve as a partial shield from passengers sitting behind you and you’re facing forward. Combined with HEPA filters this likely means that there’s less risk on a plane from similarly-distanced people than if you were in another indoor public venue. There’s little that’s shown significant spread of the virus on planes although it certainly remains a possibility. Here’s one flight attendant who says their biggest challenge is keeping other flight attendants distanced from them, not passengers.

Overall it’s statistically unlikely you’re seated next to someone with the virus, even on United (though less so perhaps out of their Newark hub). Flying on a plane is probably less likely to spread the virus than many other activities, just avoid the lavatory which isn’t cleaned during the flight. Everyone is required to wear masks. If they face forward and don’t speak that helps too.

Nonetheless some distance between you and other passengers is worthwhile, so it’s far better to fly American or Delta this month than United (American hasn’t committed to capping seat sales for June that I’ve heard yet).

Wash your hands, wear a mask, don’t use the lavatory and bring (and use) plenty of hand sanitizer. And if you must fly United then buy yourself a second seat. Frontier was right and in many cases cheaper. They were shamed for giving customers a self-help option at a discount that most other airlines have and do not advertise.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. One more reason not to fly United. There were already so many.

    Oh, and btw, I made the mistake of flying UA last weekend (only nonstop option) – the crew did not enforce the face covering rule for passengers, and the FO was not wearing one, even when he came out in the cabin to chat with the FAs.

  2. Surely we have the technology to sanitize those germy lavs after each use. I’m thinking of an electrostatic cleaner, activated after each use. According to JAMA and other scientific sources, the air in a small, enclosed enclosed area, such as an airplane lavatory, is the 2nd most contaminating source of airborne particles–not just Covid-19, but other bacterial and viral diseases which are also releaded in human feces.

  3. A few weeks ago I flew AA from JFK-MIA-SFO. The JFK-MIA leg was sold out. I don’t blame airlines for trying to reduce seats and selling what they have. However, don’t try spin something that isn’t what people think it is.

  4. “Here’s How To Protect Yourself From COVID-19”

    Forget Covid-19, protect yourself from the stupid reactions to Covid-19. Ignore the MSM and the over-hyped scam-demic.

  5. UA’s pathetic, self-serving reactions during a national crisis is what will stir the pot towards increased regulation.

    What doesn’t help the matter is the laissez faire attitude of DOT and FAA by not explicitly defining requisite conduct of airlines during this pandemic.

    UA well deserves its turn in the barrel for this, plus for cutting employee hours and withholding refunds.

  6. If you pay United for a second empty seat, you’re just encouraging the bastards.

  7. AA and DL have both stated the will TRY to block middle seats, but truthfully, the cleaning and mask will work fine per CDC and NIH standards. UA has continues to talk out of both sides of their mouths.

    When Boeing says a major airline will collapse by September, my money is on United. Sad, but this mess of an airlines will not be around long.

  8. United continually shoots itself in the foot, soon it will start chopping at its legs if it hasn’t already.
    Getting back will require companies to limp along and United seems intent on limiting the ability.

    Sad to see management working so hard to destroy the company, so many have worked so hard to build.

  9. I’m looking forward to the post form a blogger about how to protect oneself in a minefield. There are ways to do it that give one the best chance of not being blown up, but there is always the chance one will be blown up. The blog headline might be “Minefields Are Safe” or “Time To Plan Your Next Minefield Vacation” or maybe “Minefields For Dummies” or “Fun In Minefields.” When, of course, sensible people say ‘I’m not going in the frickin’ minefield.”

  10. American Airlines is doing the same thing as United. They promise to keep 50% of the middle seats unused UNTIL THEY SELL THEM. Many of their flights NY-Florida are 90% filled.

  11. There is no way I can remain in a mask onboard for 6 to 20 hours and still breathe properly
    And even if others do you still have to eat or dink which involves removing the mask to hydrate etc
    So you grab a drink of water and someone infected sneezes talks or coughs near or at you
    and you may end up dead 🙁
    We need cures/working vaccines etc or its all at your own calculated risk imo

  12. You do realize that to die from COVID-19, you first have to come in contact with the virus in sufficient quantity. Even then, you are unlikely to die. The elderly are most at risk and most of those who get COVID-19 still survive. If you are old and/or have comorbidities, you shouldn’t be flying in the flrst place. Do any of you complainers even look beyond the headline numbers? As of May 6, the CDC data show that 80% of COVID-19 deaths in the US are of people 65 years and older. Of the deaths among younger people, the vast majority involved comorbidities. COVID-19 is nowhere near a death sentence for most people. When will you innumerate nincompoops get this? Protect the most vulnerable and get on with living or we won’t be able to afford caring for anyone. Where do you think the money for health care comes from? Shutting everything down kills people, too. What took “Just One Life” Cuomo so long to do anything about nursing homes? May 10th? We’ve known about the vulnerability of the elderly for months. Just 11% of US COVID-19 cases but 35% of deaths are from long-term care facilities? Shut down the beaches! Think of the vulnerable centenarians who might be exposed to the virus while frolicking in the sand!

  13. Leaving the middle seat open is utter nonsense. It does not provide any buffer or safety from Corona spreading in the cabin. Here is a video from Purdue University, simulating one patient on a 767 in economy. Good luck with that middle seat. https://youtu.be/_VSHxkyppFU

  14. Some of you are so ignorant, are you going to pay for those seats next to you? How about the leases? And when there are less airlines you will pay more for your seats due to less competition!

  15. Well, this is quite unfortunate! Like UA, AA has followed suit and begin to sell their middle seats, ensuring a full capacity ride. I understand we need to get back to work in order to get our economy back to shape but must it be at the expense of the traveler? I feel they’re playing with your health and they really don’t care about it. For those who must travel, these airlines aren’t doing a thing for you except to jam you into an airtight machine yet still charge you heavily to fly with them. Oh and to not even provide bathroom cleaning after use (something that should have been done for years), is just another slap in the face. It’s quite sad when you’re warned and told what to do yet you do it anyway just to gain a profit…..oh and to risk peoples lives! A notice of a completely filled plane should go out well before 24hrs too. It’s really and truly as though they just don’t care.

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