By now, most major cities have anticipated a spike in COVID-19 cases over the holidays, and many are already seeing signs of the “surge upon surge” Dr. Anthony Fauci warned the nation about. The number of travelers who flew the Wednesday before Christmas Eve broke a pandemic record at 1.19 million, and that happened while hospital occupancy topped 90% in 126 countries and in Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Texas, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been recommending families stay home. “As cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to increase across the United States, the safest way to celebrate the winter holidays is to celebrate at home with people who live with you,” the agency said. City leaders have echoed that advice. “I believe the COVID rate will increase. Just as I believe most New Yorkers will put on weight,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said. “The only question is how much and how fast, and nobody knows.”
Still, many airlines are using the same seven-page study to justify backing away from earlier policies to keep middle seats open to protect customers. That study’s recommendations, however, leave quite a bit of room for error. Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health only concluded that the risk of transmitting COVID-19 on a plane reduces to “very low levels” when a combination of control measures are embraced. One of those measures is that passengers wear their masks. Another is that airlines “admit limited numbers of passengers on the plane at one time and in row-by-row sequence.” So basically if there’s no human error, we should all be fine. The more realistic airlines have accounted for the contrary.
I was pleasantly surprised by Alaska Airlines’ policy. This company has promised to keep middle seats open longer than Southwest Airlines, which has a fleet size that is more than two times larger than Alaska Airlines. The company announced on its website:
- Through January 6, 2021, middle seats are blocked and we’re capping the number of guests on our flights.
- Gate agents may reassign seats to create more space between guests or to seat families traveling together, which may include the use of the middle seats.
- There can be occasions where extra space cannot be guaranteed due to unforeseen changes such as reaccommodating guests from a previously canceled flight.
- If you’re uncomfortable with the distance between you and others on your day of flight, please speak with a customer service agent about your options.
After initially pausing ticket sales for middle seats in April, American Airlines didn’t even pretend to want to keep the policy in place until COVID-19 cases declined. It stopped blocking middle seats just before the Fourth of July, the airline announced in a news release.
“As more people continue to travel, customers may notice that flights are booked to capacity starting July 1,” the company said in the release. “Americans will continue to notify customers and allow them to move to more open flights when available, all without incurring any cost. This is in addition to the airline’s current travel waivers. Additional details regarding travel waivers can be found below and on aa.com/travelalerts.
“If space is available once boarding is complete—taking into consideration any aircraft weight or balance restrictions—customers may move to another seat within their ticketed cabin subject to availability.”
Delta Air Lines
In a move few competitors mimicked, the company announced on November 18 it would be keeping middle seats open through March 30, 2021. “Several independent studies have validated the effectiveness of the Delta CareStandard’s multi-layered protection, like advanced ventilation and an extensive cleaning regimen, which together significantly reduce the risk of flight-related transmission,” said Bill Lentsch, Chief Customer Experience Officer. “However, we recognize some customers are still learning to live with this virus and desire extra space for their peace of mind. We are listening and will always take the appropriate steps to ensure our customers have complete confidence in their travel with us.”
This company opted to straddle the fence on protecting customers. JetBlue announced on December 1 it will not block middle seats. It did, however, detail plans to limit flight capacity by only selling 85% of available seats through Jan. 7, 2021.
One month after Southwest announced that it was keeping middle seats open with the “well-being and comfort” of customers and employees in mind, the airline backtracked on the policy. I guess profit concerns outweighed its customer and employee consideration.
“This practice of effectively keeping middle seats open bridged us from the early days of the pandemic, when we had little knowledge about the behavior of the virus, to now. Today, aligned with science-based findings from trusted medical and aviation organizations, we will resume selling all available seats for travel beginning December 1, 2020,” the airline announced on October 22.
United is booking planes to full capacity and citing yet the same Harvard study to do so. The airline listed on its website:
“Since airlines began putting these measures in place in spring 2020, ‘there has been little evidence to date of onboard disease transmission,’ according to researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Their report notes that when the ‘highly effective’ ventilation systems are running from boarding until deplaning, which is our practice at United, the risk of exposure falls below that of activities like grocery shopping and dining out. And even when the plane is full, on average only 0.003% of infected air particles could enter the breathing zone of seated, masked passengers, according to the DOD study.”