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.
— Ethan Weiss (@ethanjweiss) May 9, 2020
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.