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Delta 737s parked on the ramp in Boston. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Shifting Tides: Delta Unblocks Middle Seats

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines has announced it will resume selling middle seats for flights departing May 1. It is the last U.S. airline to end the policy, originally created by select airlines at the start of the coronavirus pandemic to give travelers extra space and peace of mind on their flights.

Ever since Delta join Southwest, JetBlue and Alaska in blocking seats in April 2020, debates have arisen over how effective the system really is. Airlines did not block out rows, which means passengers sat within six feet of the people in front of and behind them. And in many cases, particularly when demand began to pick up later in the summer, passengers were still within 6 feet of the people across an aisle or in the same row.

Still, the system created peace of mind for passengers, which Delta hoped would lead potential travelers to pick to fly with it over airlines like United Airlines and American Airlines, which have long kept the possibility of putting passengers directly next to each other open for longer.

Delta has maintained that many passengers selected the airline specifically because of this policy. And the airline, much like its competitors, has maintained that the air filtration systems and cleaning procedures they instituted make catching the coronavirus while on the aircraft highly unlikely.

Selling middle seats again should bring Delta a significant revenue boost. Every seat that flies empty is a lost opportunity for an airline to make money. Flying each plane only two-thirds full means Delta missed out on a significant chunk of cash it could have earned to aid in its recovery.

Airlines have also long pressed the U.S. government to institute a federal mask mandate on planes, a move the Biden administration finally followed through with earlier this year.

A Delta Airbus A321 rockets out of Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Banking on a Vaccine

Delta CEO Ed Bastian said Wednesday that 65% of its 2019 passengers plan to have at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine by May 1, making the decision to stop blocking seats on that day easier.

The airline’s move comes as passenger counts are picking up in the U.S. The TSA has screened over 1 million passengers every day since March 11, including a pandemic record 1.57 million on March 28. With limited exception, throughputs have been at least 1.3 million every day over the course of the past three weeks.

Over 15% of the American population has been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and many more people have received at least one shot. Thus, airlines are preparing for a huge spike in travel over the summer. American Airlines has seen a surge in bookings up as much as 400% from last year and on par with 2019 levels, while United Airlines announced in the middle of March it expected to be cash-flow positive by the end of the month.

Delta is running 2,000 more domestic flights this week than it did during the same week last year and is even slightly higher than the number of weekly domestic flights it operated during this same week in 2019. The carrier says its revenues improved by 40% from February to March along with a rise in bookings.

Bastian has long been outspoken about his confidence in a post-pandemic recovery. While acknowledging it may take time, Bastian said over the summer he is fully confident in a complete recovery in business travel over the next few years.

Delta is planning a massive summertime expansion in anticipation of increased demand. It is adding numerous West Coast flights as well as services to east coast beach locations. International routes to the Caribbean will headline an international rebound.

John McDermott
John McDermott
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