Delta extends middle seat blocking policy

Delta and the other major airlines require masks on their flights due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Delta and the other major airlines require masks on their flights due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Delta Air Lines will extend its policy of blocking middle seats through March 30, the carrier announced Wednesday.

Most other major airlines have stopped blocking middle seats, while Southwest Airlines, the second-largest carrier in Atlanta, plans to on Dec. 1. Alaska Airlines has pledged to block middle seats through Jan. 6.

That makes Atlanta-based Delta the only U.S. airline blocking middle seats into the spring.

Airlines say vertical airflow in the airplane cabin with HEPA filtration, along with mask requirements, help reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19 among passengers. Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said this week that “blocking the middle seat added no modicum of safety.”

It also makes it hard to make money, airline executives have said.

But Delta says the seat blocking policy helps to reassure customers and make them more comfortable about flying during the pandemic. Customers have cited the seat blocking policy as a reason they book Delta flights, the airline says.

Delta’s decision on when to end its policy will be based on “consumer sentiment and confidence in air travel,” said Delta CEO Ed Bastian. “Sometime in the first half of next year, I have no doubt we will be lifting those caps,” he said in October.

For now, Delta chief customer experience officer Bill Lentsch said in a written statement, “we recognize some customers are still learning to live with this virus and desire extra space for their peace of mind.”

Blocking middle seats could be a way for Delta to seek a competitive advantage as airlines try to recover from the pandemic next year.

Airline analysts have been watching to see positive vaccine news translates into more bookings for the future.

Since October, Delta has capped seating on its planes at 75% capacity in the main cabin. That’s up from the 60% cap it had through Sept. 30. In business class on Delta widebody jets, which have more spacious seating configurations, there are no capacity limits.

While Delta is blocking middle seats, that doesn’t necessarily mean all passengers will have an empty seat next to them.

That’s because not all airplanes have middle seats. On Delta Connection flights that have two seats on each side of the aisle, the airline will block “select aisle seats."

Travelers may also see people sitting in middle seats on larger Delta planes, because families and others traveling together can book a middle seat to sit next to each other.