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Onboard a British Airways 747-400 in the economy cabin. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Opinion: Don’t Fault Airlines For Not Blocking the Middle Seat

Over the course of the past few months, airlines have taken a number of different measures to do their part to curb the spread of COVID-19. Most have mandated that passengers wear masks onboard. Some have scaled back their food and beverage services, as well as cut back their amenities on larger jets. And some have gone as far as to block middle seats so passengers that aren’t traveling together aren’t bumping elbows and breathing on each other for the better part of a multi-hour flight.

That last bit came with controversy. United Airlines said it had begun blocking middle seats in May. But when dozens of pictures emerged on social media of completely full aircraft, the airline admitted it was only blocking seats for advance assignment, not permanently. Many airlines, however, did completely block middle seats — American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines and JetBlue principal among them.

They were largely lauded for it, putting the health of customers ahead of their bottom line. But not all good things will last, and last week we learned that American would be booking flights to capacity beginning July 1. Is it surprising? No. Is it expected? Maybe. But is it really something to get up in arms about? Definitely not.

Airlines Are Like Restaurants

Just about every state in the U.S. implemented some sort of restrictions for restaurants. And I think those restrictions and how people and businesses have responded to them represent exactly why airlines aren’t the ones to blame about less than ideal “middle seat policies.”

Many states closed restaurants completely, leaving them to serve food only through take-out or delivery. Other states forced restaurants to cut down to 50% capacity. Some simply mandated all employees must wear masks. But no matter what the level of restriction was, one thing was constant everywhere: businesses rarely operated below the imposed legal limit for capacity.

Once a state had allowed restaurants were open, very few business owners chose to continue serving their customers only through take-out and delivery. Once a state had permitted restaurants to operate at 50% capacity, the number of establishments still filling only 25% of their tables was minuscule. Yes, some restaurants implemented other measures to make customers more comfortable dining there — substituting physical menus for scannable QR codes and placing a disproportionate amount of their tables outside are just two that come to mind — but rarely did a business choose to stay at a separate reopening level on their own volition.

And if didn’t want to eat at one of those restaurants — just like I didn’t — maybe you ordered in, cooked yourself or went and found one of the few restaurants that were sticking to a different capacity number. Nobody faulted restaurants for reopening. And if you thought the bump in capacity was a bit premature — just as I did in Texas — you probably didn’t blame people who own and run those businesses. After all, they’re operating within the confines of the law and trying to earn a profit, something that is just as difficult now as ever for most, if not all, business owners.

Few people asked businesses to police themselves because we knew what that would lead to. But those who are expecting airlines to block the middle seat are asking some of the country’s largest businesses to take a step that few people would be able to make if they were sitting at the helm of a major airline.

You may look and say, “But Delta and Southwest are blocking middle seats through Sept. 30. Why can’t American and United?” And to that, I’d say that Delta and Southwest are those other restaurants. They’re the ones that are instead choosing to operate at a lower capacity level — Delta at 60% and Southwest at 67% compared to American and United’s 100%. They’re going to look to attract customers that way, championing their stance on health and safety as a reason customers should fly with them.

I think there’s no doubt that American and United are struggling financially more than their two legacy counterparts. And I also don’t think there’s any doubt that Southwest and Delta tend to focus more on the customer experience than their main competitors. And because of those two factors, I think this is almost exactly how many who cover the industry envisioned this “blocked middle seat” debate playing out.

I wish American and United the best with their plans. But don’t expect to see me burning any of my AAdvantage miles in the months ahead. I don’t plan on flying anytime soon. But if I had to, I’d probably take Southwest, Delta or maybe even JetBlue

Parker Davis
Parker Davis
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