Delta to fill middle seats again, ending pandemic distancing policy

Travelers check in through plexiglass dividers at Delta at Hartsfield-Jackson. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Travelers check in through plexiglass dividers at Delta at Hartsfield-Jackson. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Airline also to bring back expanded drink, snack service on flights

Delta Air Lines will start filling middle seats on its planes starting May 1 as more passengers take to the skies, ending a seat-blocking policy driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Atlanta-based Delta also will bring back more in-flight beverage offerings beyond bottled water starting April 14, including mini cans of Coca-Cola products, canned cocktails and Starbucks coffee and tea. Snacks also will be expanded.

Passengers will still be required to wear masks and the airline says it will continue its cleaning protocols.

The moves come as the airline hopes for a recovery in travel after losing a record $12.4 billion last year.

“Now, with vaccinations becoming more widespread and confidence in travel rising, we’re ready to help customers reclaim their lives,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian said in a written statement.

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to warn Americans against jet setting for vacations. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Monday there has been a surge of cases after every holiday and people should “limit travel to essential travel for the time being.”

Delta is the last remaining major airline to block middle seats, months after U.S. rivals United, American and Southwest ended the practice.

Delta has been blocking middle seats since last April and used it as a differentiating factor with customers looking for extra space, comfort and distance from other passengers due to the coronavirus. But the airline’s executives had signaled in recent months that they would end the policy as travel demand recovers.

Planes are fuller and “we know there’s confidence that’s been reinstated in travel,” Bastian said during a company town hall with employees Wednesday. “We’re going to start to approach herd immunity by early summer. That gave us the strong signal it’s time to open up more seats.”

As more Americans get vaccinated, the number of people passing through airport security checkpoints has climbed back above a million people a day nationally, according to TSA figures. On some days, traveler counts have exceeded 1.5 million. That’s still down from more than 2 million a day in 2019, but is much higher than volumes a year ago.

Opening up middle seats could bring a boost in revenue for the airline by increasing passenger capacity on flights.

Delta had a 64% decline in revenue and a 69% drop in passenger miles last year. That’s roughly on par with declines seen at some of its biggest competitors, although its traffic drop was worse than American Airlines, which stopped blocking seats in July 2020.

But Delta is hoping its seat-blocking policy helped establish it as an airline with premium service that customers are willing to pay more to fly. Airfares dropped to record lows last year, but Delta’s passenger yield, a measure of how much customers pay for each mile of flying, was the highest among its big competitors, declining only 1%. United had a 3.4% decline in yield while American had a 9.2% decline.

Nearly 65% of people who flew Delta in 2019 are expected to have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by May 1, according to the airline. Carriers say studies show the risk of transmission is low on a full plane when all passengers wear masks.

However, passengers are permitted to take masks off when eating or drinking, and Delta plans to start handing out canned beverages and snacks like almonds, Clif Bars and Goldfish crackers in mid-April.

For the past year, passengers had been getting a bag with just a mini bottle of water, a small snack such as Biscoff, and sanitizing wipe.

In first class and business class on cross-country flights, Delta plans to start serving hot food in June, and on some other flights first-class passengers will get boxed meals starting in July. Sky Clubs will add more food and beverage service starting in May.

Delta and other major carriers last year announced the permanent elimination of change fees for most tickets, allowing those whose plans change to get a credit for future travel, and Delta is now extending the expiration date of travel credits to Dec. 31, 2022.

Since many frequent business travelers have stopped flying, airlines also have been adding ways for frequent fliers to keep their elite status in the loyalty program. Delta announced that for April-December 2021, its SkyMiles members can now earn miles on award travel and get 50% more miles for economy tickets or 75% more miles for premium seats.

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