United Airlines Flips The Script On Social Distancing

Filed Under: United

I’ve gotta give United Airlines credit for this one… well played.

Airlines & social distancing

Airlines have been doing an awful job when it comes to managing expectations regarding how full flights will be. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about United Airlines’ social distancing sham.

United Airlines claimed that they’d be blocking all middle seats, though in reality that just meant they were blocking middle seats from being assigned in advance, while they’ll always sell flights to capacity.

A policy like that is doing no one a favor. It just means that a lot more people will be assigned seats at the gate rather than in advance.

United’s policy was misleading, with the goal of reassuring passengers in order to sell tickets, rather than actually trying to make passengers feel safe onboard. Obviously many people believed the airline would be keeping middle seats empty, and were angry when they boarded a flight and found that wasn’t the case.

One such case went viral just a few days ago…

Passengers also aren’t realistic

There are two problems here — many airlines are doing a terrible job managing expectations, and some passengers also have unrealistic expectations to begin with. I wrote in the past about the increasing amount of “full flight” outrage we’re seeing. The way this works:

  • People take flights, most of which were probably cheap, since airfare is very low right now
  • These are generally people who don’t actually need to be on planes (they could either just stay home or drive) and are outraged to find that other people are doing the same
  • Passengers claim that they feel extremely unsafe, and seem to think that their fare entitles them to a private jet
  • They’re also outraged that there’s no “social distancing,” even though proper social distancing on a plane is an oxymoron

United Airlines’ new social distancing policy

United got a lot of flak for the above situation, and the airline is now addressing that. Not by actually blocking seats on flights, but rather by communicating with passengers when flights will be full.

Going forward, United Airlines will let passengers decide if they care about social distancing or not by at least being transparent:

  • Starting next week and through June 30, 2020, United Airlines will inform passengers if their flight is projected to be more than 70% full
  • If that’s the case, passengers will be allowed to rebook on a different flight or receive a future travel credit
  • The airline will contact passengers about 24 hours before departure so they can decide whether they want to adjust plans; the airline will also offer this opportunity at the gate, if more than 70% of customers have checked in
  • United claims that while demand has dropped drastically, the airline has also reduced the schedule by 90%; 85% of flights are less than half full, but of course that still leaves some flights being full

Bottom line

I think United Airlines is taking a good approach here. No, the airline won’t be keeping middle seats empty on flights, but at least will inform passengers when flights are expected to be full.

Previously the airline tried to deceive people into thinking that they blocked middle seats. I think it makes a lot more sense to let people know in advance their flight will be full and let them make a decision as to whether or not they want to fly, rather than leading them to believe a flight will be empty, only for that to not be the case.

Passengers will have a lot less right to complain if they know in advance a flight will be full, but still choose to take it.

Personally I still think Frontier had the right idea by trying to sell empty middle seats, but they got backlash for that as well, so…

What do you make of United Airlines’ new policy?

  1. That’s a lot better approach – are they confirming / reminding that you can buy two seats?

  2. You can tell which flights are more likely to be full vs empty. You just looked at fares on google flights for an upcoming trip. There are 3 fares on 3 different airlines. One is $269 connecting thru chicago , another is $384 connecting thru Denver , another is a 6am nonstop flight for $559. Use common sense and manage your expectations people.

  3. Ben, I know that you are no lover of UA, but come on, there is a little bit of a fake news spin going on here with the Big 3 [more so then normal]… In your piece about the angry passenger on the full AA flight you wrote it from the point of view that it was all on the passengers for being unrealistic…You also managed to throw in a dig about UA when the problem was on AA’s full flight and it had nothing to do with United…

    I saw the Tweet you sent out when this passenger posted the above pic on UA, and I almost engaged then with a link back to your previous piece about this being the FAULT OF THE PASSENGER for thinking airlines can fly with empty seats when there is demand to fill the plane… I didn’t because I know how Twitter can get…

    I will end this as I started, I know you don’t like UA, I know I love your blog so I accept that and move on, but when it comes to passengers just being unrealistic, there’s nothing wrong with calling them out, especially since that empty middle seat isn’t doing ANYTHING as far as social distancing goes…

  4. I think the US govrnment buying seats up to the (load factor)/2 of each flight @ average paid fare to keep it empty have been a good use of the bailout money.

  5. @ SEM… I agree with you. Always (Ben) a UA basher and somewhat an AA as well. I can guarantee you, if UA did the same as DL by blocking at least half the BC cabin to promote social distancing, the backlash would be incredible… people will be very upset for not being allowed to book in the forward cabin… but @ DL, it is received in a positive manner.

  6. What’s the definition of rebook though? Maybe they define it as you select the best option and also pay the fare difference.

  7. @SEM

    To be fair to @Lucky, the passenger was not expecting a full flight due to social distancing. However, both UA and AA did mention of blocking middle seat, so that is what you expect as a passenger. The fault of the passenger was trusting UA and AA.

    What @Lucky never blog about is Delta (maybe he didn’t care to follow, or just don’t want to offend readers who hate his DL praises, i.e. @pelican55). They officially said “capping seating at 50 percent in First Class and 60 percent in Main Cabin”.
    While the other two had a more vague term. AA uses “*Not guaranteed” and UA uses “avoid where possible”. I’m pulling their own words in quote.
    Even with the new UA policy, they just ‘inform’ you at 70% while DL put a cap at 60%.

    What more can I say as I haven’t yet seen a viral tweet of a full DL flight yet. Maybe this answers the comparison post few weeks ago why DL is mostly more expensive than AA.
    Again Delta leads the way.

  8. They can notify passengers all they want, but most people will still have the “need” to fly, and will continues to post pictures of full flights. This gives UA some ammo when responding to the press, but that’s about it…

  9. The one policy United still needs to address is upgrades. I’ve heard from multiple people complain they bought a ticket for first and they cabin appeared less then half full, up to boarding. Then at the gate the agent upgraded people to full capacity in first and the people who actually paid for those seats were left with some shitty choices. They could move themselves back to coach and have a whole row to themselves, try to convince/bully their newly upgraded seat mate to go back to coach, or just deal with it. Not an ideal situation at all. You paid for a first class ticket expecting to have more space and less people in the cabin and United to decides to complimentary upgrade every last gold and silver til the first class cabin is at capacity. Delta’s 50% capacity strategy is much more customer friendly right now.

  10. People are going to shit on the airlines no matter what.

    Social distancing is impossible on an airplane even with the middle seats blocked off. Further, airlines are for-profit companies trying to salvage the little revenue they can.

    Unless you want a scenario where the government starts buying the middle seats or dictating policies on how airlines can operate or who can buy a ticket – you have to accept that some flights might be crowded.

  11. United is only hurting the entire industry with their games.

    People saw the news about blocked middle seats and thought “maybe flying wont be so bad”

    Now with the pics and press, it’s back to avoiding planes.

  12. Read the Rolling Stone profile of Ben (google Ben Schlappig; it’s the first result), if you’re curious why Ben dislikes United so much. Per the article, United kicked Ben out of its frequent-flier program in 2011 because he abused their appology voucher system. This experience still seems to color Ben’s coverage of UA, whether consciously or not.

  13. @ Anon… was not aware of the Ben issue that you mention above. That sheds some light why that’s the case, in some instances. Thanks.

  14. “United’s policy was misleading, with the goal of reassuring passengers in order to sell tickets, rather than actually trying to make passengers feel safe onboard.”


  15. These passengers have an entitlement mentality. Remember that the airlines have parked 90% of their planes and are losing millions each day, and yet your airfare hasn’t changed much. If you need social distancing on a plane, book a private jet. If you can’t afford it, don’t fly or don’t complain.

  16. “You paid for a first class ticket expecting to have more space and less people in the cabin”

    You do! You get more space and less people than economy. Same as it’s always been. You don’t get to expect the seat next to you will be open, unless you want to buy it. This smacks of elitism too…I can sit up here…you are not worthy. BS! People need to grow up! If you’re gonna fly, the seat next to you and around you MAY have another passenger. If you don’t like what you see when you get on the plane you have a choice. Suck it up and fly or get off.

  17. @ alex

    “People are going to shit on the airlines no matter what.”

    Delta will have a better reputation coming out of the pandemic I believe, due to their quick implementation of a variety of safety measures.

    “Social distancing is impossible on an airplane even with the middle seats blocked off.”

    Ideal distancing is impossible, but being exposed to less people means less chance of virus transmission. Also it’s quite easy to accidentally spit on the tray table next to you if you’re sitting in the seat next to it, say while you’re not not wearing a mask while eating, but not as easy if you’re sitting a seat away.

    “Further, airlines are for-profit companies trying to salvage the little revenue they can.”

    In a free market do for-profit companies generally get $billions from the government? Sure, after that money runs out it’s back to business as usual, but if they are receiving all this money I don’t see how they can do business as usual. It’s irresponsible.

    “Unless you want a scenario where the government starts buying the middle seats or dictating policies on how airlines can operate or who can buy a ticket – you have to accept that some flights might be crowded.”

    I think this would be ideal. The airlines can’t exist right now without the government, so the government should dictate policy using recommendations from health experts.

  18. So what if a flight 123 is 80% full, the passengers are told this and then 40% move off this flight to the next flight 234. But now flight 234 is 80% full, 40% move and then again… – Maybe some will wait weeks for their flight?

  19. If Ben was stuck in that middle seat you could be sure that he would be bitching and moaning like he does about almost everything else.

  20. @Bryan has a good point and I have been wondering about the upgrade situation. When I get back to travel I will definitely only be buying front of the bus tickets and I would certainly prefer that available open space not be filled with upgrades. The obvious problem is that people have the legitimate expectation that they can apply the upgrades they have earned – either “complimentary” or via points/miles. Perhaps UA/Mileage Plus could officially suspend upgrades for the time being, with the quid pro quo of something additional to members in lieu of being able to use those upgrades for now – maybe double them later on, grant double points/miles on future flights – something creative ….

  21. Perhaps we need to rely on liability for infection manage this for us? If contact tracing shows a person was on a flight where social distancing wasn’t provided and that person contracts Covid, unknowingly spreads it to others, I could easily see enormous amounts of monetary damages being awarded.

    So the airlines can either capacity control via fares or live with the repercussions of not raising fares in the short term, which will eventually result in capacity control via risk management for fear of lawsuits brought over infection.

    If you want business to focus on protecting the consumer, we cannot absolve business from Covid liability, so write your legislators and tell then to deny liability protection for businesses.

  22. UA has (almost) always taken good care of me.

    Flying is a risk like anything else we choose to do. Going to the grocery store is a risk, especially when so many people think wearing masks in public does not apply to them which I find absurdly amazing. Instead of preying for an empty flight, manage your risk by getting a good and effective mask , an N95 respirator mask or a KN95 , either with a “FDA or NIOSH registered logo”. Don’t rely on a bandana or worse, nothing at all. Many Health care workers can not get these which is a colossal failure of government but they can easily be purchased on eBay and I believe Amazon. This will filter out the partials YOU breath by 95% and down to 0.03 Microns.

    You can also manage your risk by moving seats if you suspect someone close by is ill although hopefully their temperature has already been checked.

    Last, I saw that airline companies are instructing crews not to force customers to wear masks. This is tantamount to an IQ test, both for the carriers and for the customers who are stupid enough to put up a fuss. A good mask is your lifeline.

  23. @Stuart
    Now you know how UA is trying to get away (again!!!!) with another good vague PR waiting to blow up. This is like blocking middle seats ‘when possible’. It’s how the airline is run that separates DL from the rest.

    @Marcy Kent
    If you are already paying front of bus price, might I suggest you buy 2 back of bus seats instead. Service is non existent anyway.
    Just like what @David said, you still get more space (larger seats) and a smaller cabin (fewer seats).
    Elites do have the legitimate expectation because they (in your words) ‘earned’ the upgrades. The obvious problem is not them it’s you!!!!.
    If you want ‘quid pro quo’ then when I get upgraded next to you maybe try offering me something to downgrade myself since I ‘earned’ it. And you don’t need to be creative, just give me some cash.

  24. United is now charging double or triple compared to American. I use Google flights almost daily and haven’t found a cheap flight on United in weeks.

    American’s app hides the seat map during boarding but United’s continues to show the seat map until departure. This allows me to change flights based on the seat map. Two weeks ago I asked a gate agent to put me on a later flight that was less full, based on the app.

    American’s app only shows first class or economy but United’s app shows both.

    United’s app gives me more information and more flexibility.

    American only allows same day flight changes if the itinerary is identical but United allows me to change connecting cities.

    I have flown 78 flights this year, mainly with United and American. United’s same day policies and app beat American. American only wins with cheaper fares.

  25. Ben, don’t mind the haters. The article is pretty balanced and you give UA a lot of credit, where they probably don’t deserve it. To lie to people that they will block middle seats and then to open them up last minute is pretty despicable. They should block those seats, period. People naturally want to travel but travel won’t return to normal for a while so keeping social distancing would make the transition smoother.

  26. The easiest solution is just to acknowledge this “virus” isn’t as bad as the media make it out to be.

  27. United has raised prices to double and triple prices at American. I still fly every week and use Google flights, hoping United flies somewhere cheaper than American.

    American’s app hides the seat map before boarding has begun, making it hard to see where the empty seats are. United’s app never hides the seat map.

    I have taken myself off flights during boarding using United’s app. That is not possible with American’s.

    American’s same day flight changes are also much more limited than United’s, making it very hard to find a later flight. American only allows you to change to a later flight with identical connections but United lets you pick any connections.

    United fills all First Class seats but American blocks 1D and 1F and often blocks all of row 1, making it appear that they have passengers when they are empty.

    American also blocks the last Economy row so Flight Attendants can play Solitaire or get on Facebook but United allows passengers to pick last row seats.

    I am 1K United and Exec. Plat American and I have flown every week this year.

  28. So much for cheap fares. I just booked a UA flight RT SAN to PHL and it was almost $700 economy. I don’t see things ever rebounding at these prices for most rolls.

  29. @DC I agree. Always found United to be fair. If flying F domestic USA with 2 people you Always have 2 seats in a row so not a big issue. The main issue is can you even enter the country you’re flying into. I wish things are clearer soon so we can all start flying again.

  30. The original story I heard was that this was reported by an ER doctor who had volunteered to help in NY hospitals who was flying home, along with other medical volunteers. They were not people “who didn’t need to be on planes”and they stated that they felt much less safe on this flight than they did working with Covid19 patients in a NYC hospital. Assuming this part of the story is true, surely their complaints are far from frivolous and deserving of some respect, rather than ridicule.

    As long as airlines choose to sell tickets for less and fill seats to capacity instead of prioritizing crew and passenger safety (more expensive tickets/fewer full seats), many potential travelers who see images like this will choose not to fly if they have any choice at all. As long as passengers and crews don’t feel safe, airline revenues will not pick up, thereby prolonging the agony and likelihood of bankruptcy. CEO surveys are clear that 85+% of major businesses in the world believe that things are not going to return to pre-Covid19 conditions for two or more years. Airlines can’t make it happen faster than vaccine availability, no matter how hard they try – Covid19 lawsuits are already being filed at a record pace in the US with many more on the way. Surely the risk of being held liable for (at a minimum) contributory negligence will convince them to impose some distance between unrelated travelers. Time for the airlines to consider Plan B.

  31. … it’s a shame that the same rules do not apply to repatriation flights. The government and everyone else turns the other way on a fully-packed flight.. and social distancing rules are suddenly out the door… hypocrisy at its best.

  32. Dear Dr.Weiss
    Whilst the world appreciated you were lending a hand to NYC, UA gave you one seat, not two not three, perhaps you just stay back in the Bay Area.
    Airlines industry in the verge of going under, please wake up.

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