Delta Extends & Scales Back Seat Blocking Policy

Filed Under: Delta

At this point a vast majority of airlines the world have dismissed the concept of consistently blocking seats so that nobody has a neighbor. While that wouldn’t offer “true” social distancing, it would at least offer some amount of personal space.

Some airlines have gone above and beyond, clearly as a way of differentiating themselves. Here in the US, Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest, all block seats. Delta has just extended its seat blocking policy beyond September 30, but in the process has also reduced the extent to which seats will be blocked.

Delta extends and restricts seat blocking

With Delta’s current policy, flights are booked to no more than 60% of capacity through at least September 30, 2020:

  • Delta One, Premium Select, Comfort+, and Main Cabin, are being booked to no more than 60% of capacity
  • First Class is being booked to no more than 50% of capacity

Delta has been blocking every other first class seat

When it comes to Delta’s seat blocking policy, there’s good and bad news. The good news is that Delta will continue blocking seats through at least January 6, 2021. The bad news is that Delta is reducing the extent to which it’s blocking seats.

Through January 6, 2021:

  • For parties of one to two people, middle seats will be blocked
  • For parties of three or more people, middle seats will appear as available for booking, to allow families and travel companions to select seats together
  • With this policy change, Delta is increasing the maximum capacity in Main Cabin from 60% to 75%

Delta will keep blocking middle seats

Then through October 31, 2020, Delta is pledging the following:

  • The number of customers onboard all aircraft will be limited, with or without middle seats
  • First class will be booked to at most half of capacity (except regional jets in a 1-2 configuration, where they’ll be booked to no more than 67% of capacity)
  • One aisle of seats will be blocked on aircraft without middle seats

In other words, this means that as of November:

  • First Class and Delta One may be booked to capacity
  • Regional jets in a 2-2 configuration may be booked to capacity

Regional jets may be booked full starting in November

That’s not to say that this will happen, but rather that it could happen. As of now Delta is only making non-middle seat promises through the end of October.

Seat blocking is getting costly for Delta

When the pandemic first started, seat blocking probably wasn’t too costly for Delta to offer, given how few people were flying. However, at this point airlines have drastically reduced capacity while the number of people traveling has increased, meaning that many of the flights still operating are fairly full.

At this point it’s clearly costing Delta quite a bit to offer this benefit. While the airline has long tried to differentiate itself from American and United (which aren’t blocking seats), I’m not sure Delta is getting the short-term payoff it was expecting.

For what it’s worth, Delta’s second quarter financial results were significantly worse than those of American and United, though that goes way beyond seat blocking.

Delta One Suites will likely no longer be blocked

Where Delta has differed with the industry

The industry on the whole has argued that blocking middle seats isn’t necessary or reasonable:

  • Blocking middle seats long term wouldn’t be possible without raising airfare 50%+, which would have a significant impact on demand
  • Even with blocking seats you’re still not going to have the recommended six feet of distancing
  • The industry instead embraces things like mandatory face masks, deeper cleaning of planes, temperature screenings, boarding and deplaning processes that minimize crowding, etc.

Airlines are trying to make boarding more orderly

Delta is typically the leader among US airlines, so why is Delta willing to forgo revenue in order to block seats, while competitors aren’t doing that? It comes down to one very important point — Delta knows that for the industry to recover, consumers need to perceive flying as being safe.

Delta, unlike most other airlines, also thinks passengers are willing to pay a premium for that. Delta has long managed to get a revenue premium over competitors.

Bottom line

On the plus side, Delta will be continuing to block seats into early 2021. The airline won’t be booking you in a middle seat next to a stranger.

However, the airline is very much starting to otherwise scale back its seat blocking. Starting in November both Delta One and First Class may no longer feature seat blocking, while there are also no guarantees of seat blocking on regional jets without middle seats.

Now, it’s possible that Delta extends its current policy beyond October 31, but that’s not being promised as of now.

What do you make of Delta’s watered down seat blocking policy extension?

  1. Here’s the problem. Delta could keep its current policy and charge a premium if it provided service. But it isnt. No coffee, no Coke, nothing. Just flew a 7:45 am $1500 first-class ticket. I received a snack box full of junk snacks and a choice of beer or wine.

  2. Yay, let’s complain about the food service during a pandemic. Friendly reminder, it is a privilege to fly and many take it for granted.

  3. This looks similar to Jetblue’s policy.

    Makes sense, they need to bring revenue back, rather than adding so many flights.

    A neighbor just flew from Seattle to JFK and he said the Delta 757 had maybe 20 to 30 people.

  4. Flights are not fairly full. While some places here and there might have full-ish flights, the average nationwide, according to data published by industry lobbying group Airlines For America (A4A) is still less than 50% – 48%.

  5. Honestly I love the middle seat blocking. Even if you aren’t worried about COVID (I am), all airlines are requiring masks anyways, so you may as well enjoy the extra space!

    I’ve had to fly twice for a family emergency and had a very pleasant experience with Delta, once I stopped expecting the old product. Paid for first class the first trip and didn’t think it was worth it, so now I just book main cabin and get comfort + (we are platinum) and it is a very pleasant experience. The boarding process with 1/3 fewer people is so much nicer, as is boarding back to front.

  6. Glad to see more FC seats will be available. And once I get that upgrade is it really too much to ask for a Coke, coffee or orange juice? Yeah, apparently those are considered a Covid threat, right? Beer and wine are perfectly safe though. Time to scale back all the virus theatre….

  7. If I was a Delta shareholder, I’d be livid. Nobody cares about the middle seat being blocked, as we see from AA’s full flights. The odds of being infected with SARS-CoV-2 — much less developing severe disease and then dying from it — are slim to none.

  8. Delta isn’t even upgrading, despite what it claims. Planes going out empty with rows of empty first-class and dozens on upgrade list.

  9. I don’t do a lot of complaining to airlines but I once had a flight that was constantly delayed by 15-30 minutes until it ended up being delayed over 6 hrs. My after work 530pm flight didn’t take off until after midnight east coast time (BWI-PHX).

    Anyhow when I complained that I had a paid first class ticket and with the delay and also received no meals (due to the plane being changed and the extended delay) they wrote back that meal service isn’t considered part of the paid ticket. This was on AA.

  10. Short of the government mandating the blocking of middle seats on all airlines, DL really didn’t have much choice in the matter. They were simply leaving too much money on the table to continue the existing policy. No company can sustain these sort of losses in the long term.

  11. This is not a long term strategy and COVID is going to be a long term problem. Delta has really put themselves in a corner – face public relation nightmare eliminating this policy or face financial crisis by keeping it long term. Not to mention the Delta FAs are probably going to finally vote to unionize after this creating more headache for the company. I think so many took a leave or early retirement because they know Delta can and will reduce staff without warning whereas AA and United has a detailed process in their contracts. (Without promise of great profit sharing again which a couple DL employees told me was basically the company paying off people to avoid unionization, watch for the staff to start openly airing grievances which was hugely frowned upon) – In any event, all airlines are in trouble and each airlines has their own unique problems and I just don’t see how much longer Delta will be able to keep this policy up without drastic pay cuts or more layoffs.

  12. I think Delta may have just been charging slightly too high of a premium compared to AA and UA. Most of the flights I’ve searched, show Delta main cabin at 2x the cost of AA main cabin. I think Delta should temporarily eliminate basic economy and charge 1.5x AA and DL fares while keeping their generous seat-spacing policy. I’ll gladly pay a premium to fly Delta, Southwest or JetBlue right now. Plus — it would be really interesting compare COVID transmission rates once travel picks up speed in the fall. Delta may be shooting themselves in the foot by not holding out a fair bit longer.

  13. @Lucky: You said that 2-2 jets might be booked to capacity, but I don’t see where that’s coming from. I see mentions of “75% capacity” and entire rows being blocked. Can you clarify?

    “In other words, this means that as of November:

    First Class and Delta One may be booked to capacity
    Regional jets in a 2-2 configuration may be booked to capacity”

  14. This reminds me — what happens to Delta’s equity stake in Virgin Atl considering Virgin is restructuring?

  15. While I have noticed Delta prices being a bit higher than UA and AA on similar routes, it’s not that much higher (and typically they were slightly more expensive even before COVID). While I am surprised they extended it passed New Years, I also get why they’re doing it. Most of their flights probably aren’t even reaching 60%-75% capacity, so they might as well make it the policy as a chance to convince more people to fly them (especially as people start to buy Thanksgiving and Christmas tickets).

    Those buying last minute tickets might be the ones that pay the most, though, as that’s when availability will be limited.

    @FNT Delta Diamond I have flown Delta a few times since the pandemic began and I had no trouble getting upgraded when there was room. My last flight with them every one on the upgrade list was placed in first class with room left over.

  16. Empty middles do so little its not worth it. DL has definitely been able to charge more for flights but at the end of the day AAs PRASM and loads have vastly exceeded DL even on higher capacity. I think AA say the writing on the wall knowing it wasn’t going to be a quick solve. So you’re either blocking seats indefinitely or you just try to get people back to normal. Theres a reason AA generated 60% higher PRASM than DL (and UA) did last quarter

  17. I’m confused — so the new policy means that customers who pay for First Class will have someone next to them but customers who pay for Basic Economy are guaranteed an empty middle seat? Why would anyone pay a premium for First Class now? Given that most FC service has been eliminated, the only advantage was more space but now customers are guaranteed more space even if they only buy Basic Economy (empty middle seat next to you unless you are traveling in a party of 3+) . Maybe I’m missing something because that doesn’t make a lot of sense.

  18. My wife and I flew on Delta last week. We chose Delta because while they were more expensive the social distancing looked good. In fact, it was very good. No one sat before or behind us or beside us on two legs. American flights for the same route were very crowded — likely because they were much cheaper. That didn’t matter to us because we felt, and were, much safer.

  19. To FNT Delta,
    We booked tickets in main. We were upgraded to Comfort Plus, on all legs, and to First Class on the longest leg. But even in main, no one was near us.

  20. They are not gonna get first class buyers, if they are not offering anything but the seat. For thst, people. Would rather fly economy, knowing they will have an empty seat. Wake up.

  21. No way I’d pay the price of a first class ticket and not get first class service. Masks or not, if someone on the flight has any germ, it will spread around the plane. You can think you’re safe because of that empty middle seat, but you really aren’t. You’re all breathing the same air into your masks. If this were really so terrible, you wouldn’t be flying at all. So go ahead. Fly with that magic mask, wear it alone in your car, or when one is near you. Let your fear encompass your entire life. Before this, flights flew at capacity, and no one gave a damn about diseases spreading, people coughing and sneezing. We’ll all die some day of something, but probably not this virus. If you are particularly vulnerable, you shouldn’t be on a plane anyway; but, rest assured, that mask is an impenetrable force field that will protect you and those around you from the perils of life.

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