Southwest, Delta, and JetBlue are limiting the number of seats they sell on each flight so there’s no need for passengers to occupy middle seats. Sometimes middle seats will be taken, but that usually means families traveling together. American Airlines has been limiting loads about half as much as others – but that ends July 1.
United Airlines, in contrast, has been happy to sell a ticket for any seat on any flight and fill all the middles throughout the COVID crisis. Starting July 1 even more of those middle seats will be filled.
United will waive change fees for travelers who don’t want to fly on a full flight. They committed to contact travelers a day ahead of time to let them know that their flight will be close to full, to let them make other arrangements if they prefer.
United claims people don’t care. Airline CEO Scott Kirby reported that only 1% of people took them up on the offer to switch. However,
- That doesn’t mean only 1% of people care much about having someone in the seat next to them.
- They’ve already made their travel plans, paid for their tickets, and United doesn’t have nearly as many flights as they did in the past – changing plans isn’t as easy as catching another flight a few hours later.
- Dropping plans to travel on a full flight may mean scrapping travel altogether and accepting United scrip for future use instead.
In other words the 1% uptake rate shows United has been leaving passengers between a rock and a hard place.
One limitation United has imposed though is on non-revenue travelers. In order to deliver on their commitment to give customers advance notice, and flexibility in changes, they haven’t been clearing nonrev (employee and relative) passengers onto flights when doing so would bump the flight over 70% capacity. So while United would sell tickets for every seat on every flight, they wouldn’t let free travelers stand by to travel on flights that were more than 70% full.
Employees were informed on Thursday, however, that this cap on non-rev travel will end July 1. As JonNYC reports:
..cleared. With many/most flights running around 80%, it became virtually impossible to get on as a non-rev.
Non-revs were very, very, very unhappy about this system. It’s going away July 1, from what I understand.
— JonNYC (@xJonNYC) June 26, 2020
How United will continue to honor a commitment to let customers know in advance when they’re going to be stuck on a full flight with someone squeezed next to them in a middle seat, when they’ll be clearing nonrevs onto flights and taking those middle seats is unclear. The airline tells me, “our current practice includes NRSA listings in the calculation that triggers the notification. We’ll continue to monitor the process as we move through the summer months. “