United Airlines Starts Blocking Seats, Including In First Class

Filed Under: United

Update: As it turns out, this isn’t a policy at all. See this post for clarification. In the meantime United has introduced a new policy that actually makes sense.

United Airlines is joining the list of airlines introducing policies to encourage social distancing, including blocking seats. These policies will all kick in as of late April, and as of now will be valid through May 31, 2020, though presumably have the potential to be extended based on how the situation unfolds.

Let’s take a look at the details of this initiative.

Everyone will have an empty seat next to them

United Airlines will be blocking seats so that no one has a seatmate:

  • Obviously this means middle seats are being blocked, on planes with those configurations
  • On regional jets that are in a 2-2 configuration, one seat on each side will be blocked
  • Even in first class, seats will be blocked so that people don’t have seatmates

Seats will be blocked even in premium cabins

While we’ve seen some airlines block middle seats, not many airlines have blocked seats in first class so that passengers don’t have companions.

Customers who want to sit next to a companion can contact the airline, though personally I’d just assign seats with the blocked middles, because you can then always still use that space.

United will only clear upgrades at the gate

As you can see, United’s first class capacity will be cut by about 50%, so this will make upgrades tougher.

While this policy is in place, United will only be processing complimentary upgrades for elite members at the gate. Upgrades will continue to be cleared in the standard order, it just won’t be done in advance anymore.

Delta recently announced a similar policy, though the airline isn’t blocking seats in first class.

United will only clear upgrades at the gate

Boarding with social distance

United Airlines will be boarding fewer customers at a time to allow for more distancing during the boarding process. They’ll continue to use existing boarding groups and priority boarding, but will space out customers to minimize crowding in the gate area and on the jet bridge.

United will do more social distancing at gates

Bottom line

We’ve seen other airlines blocking middle seats on flights, though I can’t think of any other airline that is even blocking first and business class seats when two seats are next to one another.

It’s nice to see United offering this kind of spacing, though that won’t be good for upgrades. Then again, not many people will be flying in the coming weeks, and for that matter everyone gets an upgraded experience with a blocked middle seat.

Airlines can do this without too much trouble for the time being, given how empty planes are. However, obviously long term this wouldn’t be financially viable.

  1. UA is like weeks behind AA and DL. . .what a mess that airline continues to be and with Kirby it will be worse.

  2. What they are trying to achieve (social distancing) won’t work unless they block off the seats directly behind and in front of each occupied seat and will have to load with rear passengers first. I don’t think mass transit travel will be safe unless;

    A. You have had the virus and an antibody test confirms your immunity
    B. A vaccine has been developed and works

    I think social distancing will continue in one way or another until the above happens.

  3. COVID-19 is also called ‘novel’ coronavirus as in ‘new’. It is a disease, hence the ‘D’ in COVID.
    The medical community worldwide has no knowledge of the long-term health effects to an infected person.

    Today, we see stories in the media about patients who contracted COVID in February and are still showing positive after having been ‘recovered’. Also, patients are showing various health ailments – e.g. memory loss, lung scarring – months after having been treated in hospital.

    The point being, with social distancing, sanitizing and other initiatives the airlines are employing, the fact remains that once the doors are closed on an aircraft and passengers onboard, all it takes is one person who is infected, symptomatic or asymptomatic, to sneeze, speak, cough, hack and POW, that HEPA filter is useless as that persons droplets will waft through the aircraft tube, land on surfaces and inhaled by other passengers.

    Going forward, I see lawsuit city ahead as people who do fly and become infected turn to the courts to blame airlines for lack of due diligence. I can see where the airlines ask the government to give them carte blanche immunity from any and all lawsuits regarding COVID-19 lawsuits.

    This is truly a pandemic involving a dangerous, highly transmissible and deadly disease. And there are many, many more infected out there in the U.S. as testing has only been done on 1 percent of the 330 million living in the country, not including the countless illegal aliens in the tens of millions here. Look at the surge in cases right now in the L.A. metro area, and in other areas of California, Fresno, Bakersfield and in rural areas. It is exploding. And it is the more virulent and deadly Italian strain of COVID-19. Few understand what is taking place because they do not read and understand.

    Good luck to all those needing to fly at this time.

  4. There’s no such thing as social distancing on an airplane. If someone sneezes, it will travel at least 5 rows in each direction. I think this is just theater hoping the public thinks it’s safe to travel. If social distancing is really necessary, this policy by UA or any airline won’t protect anyone.

  5. Just like the TSA is “security theater”, this is “health theater”.

    Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

  6. people are going to have to accept that we are all going to have to live with covid for a long time… this social distancing crap is so useless. In theory it makes sense, but the application just doesn’t work.

  7. Sunviking, get a grip man. Every airline right now has maybe 5-7 people on each plane. Implementing this policy now vs 2 weeks ago like AA or DL makes what difference with a 2% load factor? I’m glad to see them with a plan in place for when travel starts to pick up. Granted the plan really doesn’t matter when you have someone sitting in front or behind you.

  8. This seatmap makes absolutely no sense and prevents nothing. You should be blocking 1-2-1-2-1-2. Herringbone style seat layouts.

    Otherwise, you have someone sitting two feet behind a person directly in front of them. Can United do anything right?

  9. @Lucky. Alaska has been capped the first class capacity at 50%. Aeromexico has been blocking the first class seat at 2×2 configuration as well the long haul international.

  10. UA is still doing complimentary upgrades in advance.

    Have an upcoming trip later this week, and UA upgraded most legs as early as 96 hours before departure

  11. Why bother? I flew back from Hong Kong this weekend and the plane to NRT only had 13 passengers. The one to SFO was busier, but still under 1/3 full.

  12. @James S – really? Does it matter? If you haven’t heard the planes are virtually empty anyway.

  13. Just wait until the airlines start to actually RAISE ticket prices due to the fact that they are loosing 33% of their seats!

  14. The parties and individuals responsible for the start a n d consequent around-the-Globe spread of this nation-wide (USA) AND WORLD-wide human as well as economic disastrous pandemic should be put on trial in the International Court in
    s’ GRAVENHAGE = DEN HAAG / THE HAGUE. The dt- presidential mess started in the bio-chemical testing labs of Fort Detrick, MD, near DC in dt-land.
    Usually and Normally
    “the Buck stops with the Big Boss,” a n d almost everyone on DEAR WORLD knows who this super-narcist is. Although he often blames his Predecessor, it definitely is NOT Obama.

  15. With the reduced on space in 1st, Elite status just lost even more value. Forget about ever getting an upgrade again if you’re Silver or Gold.

  16. One can argue that TSA “security theatre” has worked.

    People with infectious diseases have been getting on planes forever. And probably even with different strain of corona viruses. Planes though will probably be a lot cleaner than before and passengers more aware.

  17. Flight home tonight on UA 724, HNL-SFO. Flight was 94% full. 21 open seats total. First class 100% full. No blocking of middle seats or empty seats next to each first class passenger on this flight.

  18. UA flight from IAD to Denver.. I was offered an upgrade, but I would have had a seat mate. I declined, and was secretly shocked this was being offered. So much for social distancing and following guidelines. I understand airlines are in a tough spot but this is irresponsible.

  19. UA flight from DEN to ORD – Was not cleared to First, yet two pilots were cleared. 2 seats still open as if they are distancing/blocking off seats, yet the remaining 4 rows have full capacity with passengers sitting beside one another. As a GS member, United has been rapidly tanking on their service and support to all elites. There is no repeatability or expectation out of how anything will be handled on flights – it seems to be a flight by flight basis and whatever the gate agent chooses (or remembers) to do or not do.

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to participate in the discussion, please adhere to our commenting guidelines. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *