Delta Air Lines’ Seat Blocking Bet

Filed Under: Delta

At this point nearly all airlines 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.

Well, Delta seems to be the one exception, but not for the reason you’d necessarily think. For Delta this is more about perception than safety.

Delta’s seat blocking policy

For the months of May and June, Delta has been capping flights at no more than 60% of capacity:

  • Delta One, Premium Select, Comfort+, and Main Cabin, have been booked to no more than 60%
  • First Class has been booked to no more than 50%

Delta has been blocking every other first class seat

In other words, under virtually all circumstances if you take a Delta flight, you won’t be forced to sit next to someone else.

At first this probably wasn’t too costly, 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 something, which is especially evident when you consider that American and United haven’t introduced similar policies (however, airlines like JetBlue do have similar policies).

Reuters is now reporting that Delta is seriously considering doubling down on this policy. While Delta hasn’t officially confirmed this, the report suggests that Delta plans on extending this policy into July.

Not only that — future bookings are actually looking pretty strong (as a relative matter), and as a result Delta plans to actually add capacity to their network in July so that they can continue to block seats in line with their current policy.

Where Delta differs 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 great impact on demand
  • Even with blocking seats you’re still not going to have the recommended six feet of social 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 other airlines, also thinks passengers are willing to pay a premium for that. Delta has long managed to get a revenue premium over competitors, so even during this time they think they have the ability to do so.

What does “safe” actually look like?

There’s a lot of debate about whether it’s safe and responsible to fly, and frankly I’m even torn on how to feel about this.

Obviously we want airlines to take all necessary precautions, but beyond that, how do airlines create the perception of flying being safe? Things like face masks are a given, but beyond that, do airlines make passengers feel safe by trying to create a return to normal as much as possible, or by trying to remind you at every turn that these aren’t normal times?

For example, yesterday Qatar Airways announced that their crews will be wearing full body suits for the foreseeable future.

This isn’t something that’s recommended by the industry on the whole, and for that matter it’s not something I’ve even seen many doctors recommend. Qatar Airways is one of the few global airlines to announce an initiative like this (at least up until now).

However, I suppose this fits in the “better safe than sorry” category. Then again, is there incremental value in this over face masks and even face shields?

How do Qatar Airways’ flight attendant uniforms make you feel?

Purely in terms of perception — and perception will be very important in a recovery — how does this make passengers feel?

  • I would assume it makes some people feel safe knowing precautions are being taken
  • Personally I think it will make a majority of people feel uneasy, and remind them that flying isn’t normal (to be clear, that’s not necessarily a bad thing)

Let me once again emphasize that I’m approaching this from the perspective of the perception of the general public, rather than the actual safety of flying.

Delta is obviously taking a different approach. They think the way to make people feel comfortable is to take all recommended precautions, but beyond that to make the flying experience as normal as possible again, while giving people a bit more space.

While blocking middle seats may not make flying materially safer, I do think it will make people perceive flying as much safer. At least I assume so, based on the amount of full flight outrage we’ve seen from people.

Bottom line

While it’s not realistic for airlines to block middle seats long term, I commend Delta for the approach they’re taking, and for trying to differentiate themselves. The airline recognizes the importance of passenger perception in creating a return to normal.

This is also going to be one of the biggest hurdles that the industry faces. Should airlines be taking precautions that are obvious at every turn so that people can be reminded of these efforts, or should airlines try to work as much as possible in the background, realizing people feel more comfortable when things appear normal?

How do you think perception will play into a recovery for airlines?

Comments
  1. It’s clearly REASSURING… and I believe that is what consumers, as they deliberate whether to dare getting on a plane in the near future, will be looking for.

    Delta leads again, well done!!!

  2. People in the climate cult will be irate at this policy.

    But good on delta to be doing this while fuel costs are low but in the long term we have to get back to using all the seats to keep travel affordable and not just for the elites.

  3. Do they really? 99% of flights are running less than 30%, even at 50%, center seats are empty. This is just hype. . .DL was expanding their service for the month and labeled it. Good marketing but little impact and differently not leading. Nice try DL.

  4. Sitting shoulder to shoulder with a stranger on United or American…no thanks! Delta has my vote if I must travel.

  5. You would also think this has self-fulfilling prophesy component. People that choose Delta and pay extra would likely be more conscience of social distancing guidelines, as compared to others that are deem the $ tradeoff is not worth. If I had to fly, I’d be willing to pay more to sit with that crowd.

  6. Roman – You’re in a confined space breathing the same air circulating around as a bunch of other people, it doesn’t matter if you’re shoulder to shoulder or 10 feet away.

  7. DL values its customers and puts words into action. Whereas UA puts words out there that don’t mean a thing and only seem to anger its customers.

  8. Delta has my vote too!
    For ten years I have been EXP or Platinum with AA no more of your cheap airline Parker!
    United is even worse!
    Good for you Delta your will be my new airline of choice!

  9. Even pre-COVID-19 having the middle seat empty is a huge bonus, given the current situation having a guarantee middle seat free is a huge stress reliever to an already stressed environment. Yup, I’ll take it. Well done Delta.

  10. If I need to travel, I will pick Delta for sure, and pay a premium to do so. Good job Delta.

  11. Check out United fares for June. Long FT thread on topic. Fares are MASSIVELY higher than other airlines. And they will be filling those middles at the gate due to too much of a capacity cut. Fun times.

  12. I call bullshit on this bromide that’s constantly trotted out and never gets questioned:

    “The industry on the whole has argued that…blocking middle seats long term wouldn’t be possible without raising airfare 50%+….

    Now, I do not doubt that flying a plane with every seat full is more profitable than flying the same plane with a load factor of roughly 60-70% full (which is what most flights would be like with “middle seats” blocked and alternating domestic first). And I do not doubt that significant adjustments to many things – probably including ticket prices – would need to be made to keep airlines in business. But simply declaring that airlines would have no choice but to increase ticket prices by 50% is disingenuous and dishonest.

    There are countless ways to adjust operations to tweak costs and revenue. Simply multiplying all ticket prices by 1.5X is a brain-dead way to do it – and surely just a negotiating position.

    The airlines are taking massive public funds for a bailout. Stop the hand-waving and posturing about “ooooo, so sorry, we would have no choice but to increase prices by 50%, and you won’t like it”. Nonsense. Lets open the airlines’ books and take a look.

    Would prices go up? Yeah, I expect they would. Would prices go up by 50%? Only if that’s the choice the airlines make. There are countless other choices they could make that would allow empty seats, too – at a minimum, nobody should just take the airlines’ word for it without “seeing their work.” Let regulators and the flying public see the books, since we all have a stake in the airlines’ survival.

    But fixating on how much the price of a ticket might go up really misses the bigger point. Maybe ticket prices shouldn’t be so low – even if that’s what consumers want. Of course consumers want low prices. But…what’s the real cost of those low priced tickets? And who’s paying those costs?

    How about the cost of another COVID wave as soon as people start flying again? The cost of all the hospitalizations, the ICU beds, the ventilators, the lost productivity, the hit to the economy – never mind the deaths? All those public health and economic costs are externalized – the airlines don’t need to worry about them. If another 50,000 Americans are killed in the next wave (not an impossible scenario – see the 1918 pandemic), or even if it’s just more cities and states going back into lockdown for another 2 months (happening now in Germany after they “opened up”, despite how well they seem to have managed things)…should those “costs” be factored in? Maybe the cost of giving passengers a bit more space on flights, and not forcing them to literally rub up against strangers for hours and hours, is a bargain compared to the alternatives.

    Or is the price of an airline ticket the only thing anyone should ever care about?

  13. I wish Delta would fly their 757-200’s NBA charter planes for the public that has only 72 seats all being business class with a lot of space for very tall people but Delta only has 11 of them. I would pay extra to fly on these planes.

  14. Luckily I live in one of those big coastal cities where I can choose any airline to fly across US. While I’m not going to fly any time soon, I know I would pick Delta if I have to. Yes I know it’s going to be less than 6′ between me and the next person. But having no one sit next to me will psychologically make me feel better even if I have to pay 50% more. In fact, I wish airlines will give people options to buy seats around them. If forced to fly for emergency, I will gladly buy the seat in front and back and next to me so I can be away from people.

  15. Even though it’s not financially economical for Delta to do this Long term, for the short term I think they’re on the right track. FLYING Qatar would make me feel like “Oopsy ! I made the wrong choice to fly Qatar this time“.

  16. Commend Delta for moving in the right direction however, just book a flight and noticed when selecting my seat, that the last 4 rows were blanked out.. is this their concept 40 percent vacant??

  17. This is smart policy by Delta, since folks will likely be terrified of air travel for quite some time, and is a competitive advantage for them in the short term – especially if they are able to attain a fare premium.

    That said, I think most folk epidemiology suggesting a very high risk of spread *while onboard* is likely to turn out to be at least moderately wrong. There’s just not much evidence for it, and the obvious evidence you would expect to see (like outbreaks in contract tracing studies, highly disproportionate infection among flight crew, etc.) is conspicuously missing:
    * https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/05/18/airplanes-dont-make-you-sick-really/
    * https://twitter.com/zeynep/status/1262449742824554504
    * https://www.worldaware.com/resources/blog/threat-contracting-covid-19-airline-low

    Spending 2 hours dining in a poorly ventilated restaurant with no mask wearing (while eating) is almost certainly more dangerous than 2 hours on a HEPA-ventilated 737 with everyone wearing masks. I don’t have a high degree of confidence in that, but I think others are far too confident that flying is extremely dangerous right now. Nevertheless, as long as people believe it, Delta’s bet will probably pay off.

  18. I’m laughing at the full PPE on the Qatar air cabin attendants. That will protect them, not the passengers. The exterior of their PPE & gloves will still be touching everything and passing that on to whatever they touch & then hand to me!

  19. Many purchasing decisions are emotional decisions – if that weren’t the case, we wouldn’t have advertising and marketing.

    Delta is brilliant for doing this. I was loyal to United for years, then for a few years Delta had all my business, then for a few years American had my business.

    I’m not traveling at all these days (Emirates cancelled my flight to S. Africa two weeks ago with the pandemic), but if I have to and when I get back on the road for work, Delta gets my business. Aside from the fact that they have the best flight crew of any big three carrier, operationally they can’t be beat (from on time arrivals to getting bags at the carousel quickly). I no longer fly economy at all on revenue tickets (I’m old, I have a bad back, and domestic first fares are affordable these days), but even the thought of sitting 2 x 2 in domestic first makes me uneasy. Call me hysterical, I’m okay with that. But 1 x 1 in first at the peak of the pandemic? If I have to go somewhere, Delta gets my business. And they’ll get it after the pandemic is over, because they do thoughtful things like this – from a marketing perspective, they win, congrats Delta, I’m buying what you’re selling.

    The Skymiles program still sucks out loud, but I’m still going to stick with them when I travel for work or pleasure domestically in the USA.

  20. The middle seat blocking (by both Delta and Alaska) is great because now i’ve been buying Saver/Basic Economy fares for all my flying for the past few weeks and into June/July/August

    The basic fares are dirt cheap right now, and come with free changes/cancellations due to flexibility of booking, and the middle seat is empty so there is no “bad” seat? Sign me up!

    This has been the best few weeks for domestic travel to otherwise crowded parks and hiking trails, and I’ve been loving it. The only downside has been reduced flight frequency so you have to be a bit flexible on taking the 1-2 flights that run to your destination, but otherwise its been great.

  21. How does this make any sense financially? If you are concerned about flying, buy the middle seat next to you. No one is forcing you to fly and any idiot know there is no social distancing on a plane. Airlines need cash and full flights to make money. How long is Delta going to do this? Until a vaccine? Can they financially do it that long? If not then what? Oops, sorry customers, we are abandoning that cuz we can’t make money on it and then re-parking planes and laying off staff. All these posts saying Delta cares for customers. No they don’t. No airline or major corporation does. You are a fool to think so. They are there to make money for themselves and share holders. It’s a PR stunt. People want to feel babied on a plane. They are mad when there is a lack of food options (bring your own food on board if you’re that picky), they are made the flight is full (but the seat next to you), they are mad when they miss a tight connection (don’t buy a ticket with 45 minute connection time), they are mad when there isn’t a cookie (toss one in your bag). People need to stop thinking the airlines care about you – they don’t. It’s a gigantic conglomerate with razor thin margins. Like the CEO even said, they want to make people “feel” safe when any logical person knows there is no social distancing on a plane. I’d rather fly a discount airline and buy the whole row than pay the same price showing up to an airport expecting the middle seat is open when it probably won’t be.

  22. I just flew on delta a week ago and was very impressed with nobody in my row but me. Only one person in row in front of me. They sanitize the pls e before you load and after the previous load customers leave. It was super clean and took extra time for them to do that. Almost everyone had masks on. I was very impressed.

  23. Southwest is doing the same through June…

    From their website :

    We are limiting the number of people onboard each flight to provide Customers more personal space so there will be no need for the middle seat to be occupied (currently through June). But if you’re traveling together, you can still sit together.

  24. Do your research… JetBlue is doing the same and blocking seats so you don’t have to sit next to someone unless they are in your party…

  25. And when the demand increases to a certain point, will these “perceptions” still prevail over reality? (I have a feeling at least at this site, yes.)

    The idea that we have to justify our “non-essential” trip to ourselves using the “perception” of safety is just sad. Then stay home!

  26. Whatever the reason and costs being equal, wouldn’t you always prefer a virtual guarantee of no seatmate? Fly DAL and SWA.

  27. Barry Sternlicht (Starwood Properties) was on CNBC this morning saying that his friends from LA were looking (and / or flew) LAX MIA and each of the only two non-stops (I would imagine that is AA) were fully booked! No way I would fly on a fully booked flight! Zero chance.
    We need to have some confidence that there is social distancing and that EVRY1 is wearing a good mask.
    Period.
    Before we can fly again.

  28. I’m not afraid to fly now and it wouldn’t bother me if someone had the seat next to me. But I’ll be dammed if I’m going to wear a mask. So until that is lifted, I’m out.

  29. As a young (by CV standards, in other words younger than 65) healthy man I have zero concern about catching the virus, but having a guaranteed empty seat next to you is a solid premium feature. If Delta dropped the face mask requirement, I’d fly them all the time.

  30. I am happy to wear a mask but I am also super glad for Delta’s reassurance. Sitting 10 feet away versus right next to a contagious person *of course* makes a difference in the likelihood of getting infected.

    So yes, kudos to Delta. Thanks for leading the way.

  31. All you knuckle-dragging, Trump-sucking fascists can’t seem to understand a very simple fact. Here is it again, I’ll use small words so you might grasp the concept this time:

    You don’t wear a mask because you are afraid of catching the virus.
    You wear a mask to protect OTHERS from YOU spreading the virus and killing THEM.

    Every one of you troglodytes fail to grasp this simple concept. It’s not about fear. It’s about responsibility. Perhaps because you are completely incapable of thinking about anyone other than yourselves?

    You wear a mask because you care about NOT causing the deaths of others.
    You refuse to wear a mask because you just don’t give a damn about anyone but yourself.
    Simple.

  32. Frontier tried making it easier for customers to purchase middle seats but quickly got backlash for it and backtracked because of the (supposed) optics of trying to profit from safety . Yeah one could say it’s Frontier, ULCC, different crowd, etc. Though it would be quite interesting if Delta later on decides to make it easier to buy the middle seat and it NOT receive the same backlash.

    Even though it’s always been, and still is possible, to purchase an extra seat on most airlines, the flying public will have no issues complaining that the airlines are out to make a buck if the airline decides to make it easier to sell that middle seat to the adjacent window/aisle passenger to keep it empty.

  33. Seeing cabin crew in full-body suits and PPE (bordering on hazmat suits), like the photo from Qatar, would not make me feel safer to fly their aircraft. Good on Delta for the steps they are taking.

  34. Like always, Delta was not the first to do this. Jetblue was. Whatever Jetblue does, Delta copies.

  35. IMO, this action shows yet again why DL is a better run airline. We’re in a situation where perception means almost everything to a lot of people. Whether it really is safer to spread people out on an aircraft is not really the point…it’s the perception that the airline is taking steps to protect you. DL is responding to perception.

    Then you have UA which have had passengers post pictures of full fights. UA’s response – “in the future, we’ll tell if a flight is 70% full and then you can decide what you want to do”. UA doesn’t get that it’s policy creates the perception of – “we really care about making money, so we’ll take your money and if you don’t want to fly, we’ll let you change your plans, but we’re not giving you a refund.”

    Look, I get airlines need to make a profit. However, we’re in a situation where the airlines have to stop with these short-sighted decisions and maybe give a little now for the long-term benefit…guarantee spacing for a while. Like everything else, this will pass and the “spacing” mentality will go away. DL seems to get it, UA, not so much.

  36. So this would explain why Delta from MCO to ABQ shows no availability until mid-June. I’m flying out there this weekend (going up a mountain to stay off-grid, so self-isolating) and had to fly United, not my first choice. I’ll let you know how it goes next week.
    @Dick Bupkiss : They will never get it. Florida started opening up last week, and off came the masks. Consideration and responsibility are NOT their concern.

  37. My cousin flew both American and Delta last weekend, and said that Delta was remarkably better in terms of seating and cleanliness. They are always my first choice!

  38. @Sam Trenton

    Do your research??? You mean yourself???
    JetBlue never ‘officially’ say they will block seats. Until today (which is after your post). Delta is the only airline to officially cap at 60%, others have fine print that gives them discretion to not block middle seats.

    I did the research as I do need to make a trip in the near future so I am actually monitoring policies of every major US carriers to choose who I fly with.

  39. Probably the most Delta thing Delta has done since the outbreak: Provide a perception of health safety unfounded by any data, but market the hell out of it like there was some benefit to blocking a middle seat.
    The person coughing behind you will still get you sick. The person coughing to your left and right will still get you sick. the Two aisle seats next to each other will still you get sick. The guy 20 rows behind you will still get you sick when he touches the lav door or walks by you grabbing your seat as he does.
    Typical Delta. All marketing hype. Little benefit.

  40. Personally,
    I prefer new modern aircraft.
    AA Leads the way.
    Delta is smoke and mirrors.
    Lots of Delta employees on here.
    Good cheerleaders!

  41. While Delta leads I get an email from the new CEO of United that they have partnered with Clorox to clean their planes. What did they use before? Oh, wait. They never cleaned it.

  42. I don’t think your average person knows how the profit margins of an airline work. This might be a good short-term bet for Delta, but it’s ultimately unsustainable in the long run.

    In order to break even an airline needs at the least a bare minimum 75-80% capacity on its planes. They basically need to be full. It isn’t economically feasible or efficient to fly half-empty planes when demand is just now beginning to tick upward with more states reopening. Something needs to offset the loss in revenue from the artificially lowered capacity and that usually comes in the form of higher ticket prices.

    Now in theory they could add more flights per day, but that would be cost prohibitive and inefficient seeing as demand for air travel clearly isn’t what it used to be. So it’s a problem of too much demand and too little at the same time. Airlines are in an impossible quandary because of social distancing.

    Moreover, I think any reasonable person would recognize that social distancing on an aircraft is unrealistic especially now given that more people are taking to the skies again. By blocking the middle seat you’re only getting an additional 16 to 18 inches of space. That’s obviously not 6 feet apart. So in essence what Delta is doing is smoke and mirrors seeing as social distancing on a plane is inefficacious to begin with unless there are literally 10 people on that plane. It’s false reassurance that they’re selling. They do deserve credit for good marketing though.

  43. Question, if you had a ticket to fly in Maydid you give back money or valture if you didn’t fly

  44. You flyers are nuts you say yes nobody next to me but 19 inches behind you and in front of you are passengers, wow. What are you going to do when the passenger behind you coughs or sneezes twice.

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