CORRECTION: United Airlines’ Social Distancing Sham

Filed Under: United

Earlier I wrote about what I perceived to be United Airlines’ new social distancing policy, based on a press release from the airline. I figured it was coming, since they’re a couple of weeks behind the competition here — Alaska, American, Delta, Lufthansa, etc., have all announced substantive seat blocking policies.

Well, as it turns out United’s policy is not much of a policy at all.

What United claimed about social distancing

Let me quote United Airlines directly:

Beginning late April, we are implementing additional steps to promote social distancing on all United and United Express flights by making some temporary changes to seat assignments and adjustments to our boarding process.

Limiting seat selections in all cabins, so customers won’t be able to select seats next to each other or middle seats where available. We’re also alternating window and aisle seats when seats are in pairs.

Here are the diagrams United Airlines included:

I’d like to note there are no asterisks, and no further clarification regarding the above. But to me the statements seem pretty self explanatory — United Airlines is blocking seats so that no one has a seatmate. The diagrams make that crystal clear, no?

Apparently United isn’t blocking seats at all

I got an email from one of United’s communications employees issuing a correction to my story. In addition to highlighting (in yellow) nine areas where I should change my blog post, they included the following message:

Hey Ben, a few things you’ll need to adjust in your story that are inaccurate (I’ve highlighted below). Let me know if you want to chat.

  1. “Everyone will have an empty seat next to them” – that’s the intent and the likely outcome, but we don’t guarantee it. There still may be instances when someone may not have an empty adjacent seat, but with the load factors so low (and these new measures in place) it’s unlikely.
  2. “First class capacity will be cut by about 50% so this will make upgrades tougher” – no capacity cuts in any cabin; upgrade chances remain the same (except for any seats held for FAA exemption jump seat locations)

Wait, what?! How do you not reduce capacity on a plane while also saying “customers won’t be able to select seats next to each other or middle seats where available?”

I followed up, because I was genuinely confused. I mean, I follow airlines incredibly closely, and I also read airline press releases for a living, basically.

If United isn’t actually blocking seats, then what are they doing? Here’s the explanation I received:

As we say on our United Hub page, we are *limiting* seat availability for customers to select prior to departure. This provides customers with more options to practice social distancing when choosing their seats. It also allows us the flexibility to make adjustments at the gate depending on various circumstances (families, for instance, may still want to sit together and we want to provide them with that option).

We will continue to upgrade customers into the premium cabins, in which there may be scenarios where every seat is occupied. However, we’ve seen instances where our customers decline the upgrade and choose to remain in the economy cabin for purposes of social distancing. Or, due in part to low load factors, only a few customers receive upgrades and we’re able to ensure their adjacent seats remain unoccupied in part because we’ve put the earlier restrictions in place.

We don’t guarantee that a customer will have an empty adjacent seat; that’s not part of our message.

Just to recap:

  • Oh great, United is letting us social distance during the booking process; I’m so happy that I don’t have to invite my seatmate over for dinner a week before the flight, but rather that I’ll just have to sit next to them on the plane
  • United’s first class social distancing relies on people turning down upgrades voluntarily

Was my interpretation that crazy?

The United spokesperson then tells me that:

We can disagree on the level of detail and/or clarity that’s currently on our United Hub page, but from a purely objective standpoint what you wrote is not accurate and I’m asking that you address it.

I’d like to open this up to you guys, as I trust you all to be “objective.” I’ll update my post to reflect United’s (in my opinion misleading) press release, but how did you interpret it? Based on what was published by United, did you assume:

  1. They’re only letting people not assign seats in advance, but they’ll sell every seat on the plane and potentially have zero social distancing
  2. They’re actually blocking seats and reducing capacity, as we’ve seen from so many other airlines

And while I’m on this topic, I have to be honest — while United has some great employees (and at least a couple of good people working in communications), I’ve overwhelmingly found United’s communications people to be among the rudest when it comes to communicating:

  • Most airlines would say something along the lines of “hey, I totally get how you interpreted something X way, because that is confusing, but that’s not what was intended, and I’d appreciate if you could fix it”
  • In the case of United, I find their “correction” messages to pretty consistently make it seems like I’m completely nuts for logically interpreting their press releases and/or sharing editorial (the latter has been an issue in past communications with them)

I tend to think you catch more flies with honey than vinegar, but that’s just me.

Bottom line

United Airlines is helping passengers social distance by not actually doing anything, really. They’re blocking seat assignments in advance so that you can’t select seats next to someone, but that’s all they’re doing. They’ll sell a flight to capacity, and it could be that every seat will be occupied.

Their social distancing and pretty seatmap relies on people volunteering to turn down first class upgrades, and on a lack of demand.

In many ways they’re actually hurting those who are traveling with others and want to avoid sitting near strangers. All aisle and window seats will be assigned first, leaving many people traveling together on a full flight seated between two strangers…

Comments
  1. Your initial reaction is off base. No airline is going to let a seat go unfilled, ESPECIALLY during times like this.

    United is simply saying “we will block these seats so passengers can’t select them prior to departure, but we will fill the seat if there are no other options.”

    Don’t be mad at companies that are trying to make money and stay afloat. Be mad at the idiots that are out there flying just because it’s cheap.

  2. wait…what?

    So are they teasing consumer that the seats in the middle are blocked in order to make the flight look less full in the hope more people book? I don’t understand what they are attempting to do here.

  3. Your initial interpretation is how I would have read it, so the clarification is important. Indeed, they only say they are limiting ‘selection’ but that’s it. It doesn’t prohibit them from filling those seats.

    Of course, there is the other matter that this is hardly adequate distancing anyway… even with the spaced out seatmap, if the person behind you coughs/sneezes, you’re in the 6 ft circle anyway.

  4. I had exactly the same interpretation as you.

    An image tells a thousand words, and the fact that the diagram shows the aisle first class seats grayed out, with no asterisk or anything, would tell anyone viewing it that they are blocked off, when essentially, they are just as accessible day-of as they always have been.

    This is a disgusting and cheap marketing ploy, trying to make it sound as if they are being caring, without doing squat.

  5. You mean to say, United is putting profit ahead of the well being of their customers as usual?

    Not at all surprised.

    And yes, their message was misleading, intentional or not.

  6. Proper social distancing really isn’t possible on aircraft. If you fly at present you are accepting a certain level of risk, which, with current loads, is probably quite small.

  7. United: As any thinking person would, you misinterpreted our earlier “health theater” announcement. It’s even less “health” and more “theater” than you thought. Thank you.

  8. “I also read airline press releases for a living, basically.”
    Ah, the glamorous life of airline blogging 😉
    I hope you get back ion the sky soon.

  9. I don’t think airlines should be required to provide empty seats to passengers, after all travelling is a choice most of the time. Passengers are free to bring N95 masks and disinfectant wipes if they wish to take extra precautions for their journey. Requiring face coverings for air travel like is done in Canada would be an economically viable solution to the aircraft density problem.

  10. Other airlines like Emirates, Gulf etc have also announced social distancing seat-blocking, but once you read the details it says “based on expected load factors” and such which clearly means this is all just a PR stunt and distancing will only remain as long as people don’t buy tickets. Which is likely true over next few months.

  11. +1 on United issuing misleading press releases, at least to anyone with common sense.

    And obv we only have a few select quotes to base it on, but yeah they sound pretty rude.

  12. So they’re blocking the seat map until airport control and leaving it to the gate agent to manage any seating changes as needed. When there are more than a handful of passengers on a flight that could be a mess, but they probably aren’t that worried about operational reliability at this point anyway.

  13. Wow. I am usually sympathetic to the challenges that airlines are facing now and the steps they are taking to stay in business, but this is just unbelievably maddening.

    From a purely objective standpoint, any layman would understand the word “limiting” to mean exactly what it means and what is stated on the page: “so customers won’t be able to select seats next to each other or middle seats where available.”

    Nowhere does the post on The Hub indicate the lengthy explanation provided to you that would effectively change the entire meaning of the posted statement. The two accompanying images are incredibly misleading and simply inaccurate.

    The tone of the spokesperson comes across as highly unprofessional. It would have been perfectly acceptable to include the explanation and caveat on the post, but the message neither clear nor communicated.

  14. What a “nice” and pleasant tone from your United public relations contact. I‘m guessing you haven’t been talked down to that much since you were in diapers (if ever)! At least we know where their crews get it from….

  15. Yes I agree with United that you over reached in your interpretation and I don’t find yours the most reasonable interpretation either. With that being said, the 1×2 photo doesn’t appear to show “alternating window and aisle seats when seats are in pairs,” unless I’m also misinterpreting that. And yes the communications person was rude and condescending. Glad to hear we won’t be losing CPUs. And if you don’t want someone sitting next to you you can always d/g at the gate.

  16. You should tell the UA employee to get their head out of their a**, it’s not a hat. No one would interpret the initial communication the way they apparently intend.

    Appreciate the transparency from your end, Ben.

  17. They would be better of blocking every other row and let families sit together. Oh wait, that’s pro-customer. Never mind.

  18. Good on you. I wonder how many of the main points blogs would actually call out airline communications’ disingenuous double talk instead of becoming PR mouthpieces for them.

  19. I don’t get how this is a surprise to anyone. Yeah their graphics are pretty bad but what did you exactly expect, that they would actually voluntarily fly the planes half empty if there was actually demand?

    This seems like a somewhat reasonable middle ground.

  20. United sucks as an airline, unless you live in some unfortunate areas where United is pretty much your only option, you can’t seriously think they’re worth your money. I have my qualms about AA & Delta but they have been far better throughout this whole issue than United.

  21. Truly the worst airline in the US, with SWA coming up a close second. Unbelievable. Who knew AA would step up and be the leader in this time of crisis. DL and AK also doing a fine job to put passenger and employee safety first also. The rest of them are just looking out for themselves. Trust me, we will remember Mr. Kirby. UA will be 1/2 the airline it was when this is done and will be the slowest to recover if at all.

  22. I think your interpretation of their PR was logical and absent the “correction” not sure how anyone could have known they were only blocking the seats until the airport. Seems pretty stupid, firstly planes are EMPTY right now so I can’t imagine people looking at a seatmap with 10 seats taken and deciding…hey you know what, I’m going to choose this middle seat between 2 people when there’s 30 rows of completely empty seats! That’s asinine. The only time one would purposefully not choose an empty row is if you’re traveling with someone, so now the gate agent gets to do a bunch of seat swaps at the gate. Well maybe not “a lot” given again, the planes are empty.

  23. The only thing that United’s CEO, shareholders and administration types are interested in is federal bailout ad infinitum, stuffing the planes to capacity ASAP, bonuses, golden parachutes and shareholder price. Nothing less than that. That is their everything in their greedy lives. They are nothing but a socialist airline, as are now most of the global carriers. Privatize the profits, socialize the risks – in the trillions of dollars. But, as the elites have managed over centuries, the lumpen masses do not question the feudal system, and are pleased to receive their ekonomik stiffilus check of 1,200 bucks. Akin to the serf eating the scraps from the lord’s supper table. They love it, can’t get enough of it. THINK, FOLKS! Oscar Munoz is a multi millionaire along with many of the top dogs. He suffers not, but profits from the misery! Look for higher fees, higher ticket prices ahead. Never let a crisis go to waste, nor a dollar.

  24. I think you guys are too busy playing keyboard warrior trying to bash big bad United to miss an obvious point where this applies… if I’m traveling with my wife and even if every seat in regular economy was open but there was an Economy Plus window/aisle and a middle, I’m taking the two adjoining seats in E+ every time. And I’m far from alone here. This would now mean that unless there’s a window and an aisle available in the same row in E+, in order to book two seats together I’ll have to take something in the back. Is it a bit misleading, perhaps but I don’t blame any airline for filling up their planes, especially at a time like this. Also, it seems like you were both acting snarky, you just have a platform to whine about it.

  25. @Paul S.

    Socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.

    Let’s reopen America. Back to work people. I wanna fly already.

  26. The diagrams used clearly intend to show the seats as blocked therefore a reasonable person could be expected to conclude blocking seats as shown is United’s mechanism for implementing the stated goal since, lacking one in the text, this is the only description.

    Even if United had spelled out what’s going in the text the drawings are misleading because they conflict with what they’re doing. Without accompanying explanation they smack of fraudulent inducement.

    You were right to call United out on this. Hopefully the DOT will begin an enforcement action,

  27. Lol while I agree with you that United’s press release wasn’t clear and they really need not have been that rude, I’m pretty sure this is the same as other airlines that are “blocking” seats. At most airlines we just use blocking to refer to not allowing physical seats to be selected, but blocking doesn’t have anything to do with the overall aircraft capacity/how many seats are sold per cabin. So even when American and Delta say they’re blocking seats, I’m pretty sure they’re just doing the same thing (so if a flight is more full than available seats, an airport rep will have to unblock those middle seats from the seatmap and assign them to a customer)

  28. The press release stated that customers would not be able to select middle seats. It did not say middle seats would not be sold. United perhaps should have made that clearer. However, we have to be careful with making assumptions with what we read instead of what it actually says.

  29. @Ben can you get clarity from Delta on what their policy actually is? They say they are blocking middle seats as well but does that mean just until airport control also?

    I have a flight at the end of May on Delta and purposely we selected the aisle and the window so we would have the whole row to ourselves but if there is no 100% guarantee of that I want to change us to the 2-seat side of the plane (717).

  30. A little personal responsibility would go a long way. If you choose to fly, you may be within close proximity to a stranger. If that’s too much of a risk, don’t do it. Or buy the seats around you. Not practical you say? I agree but why do you expect cash strapped airlines to provide it for you?

  31. It’s amazing how the masses have rallied around ‘social distancing’ as the salvation of all mankind.

    That’s the real problem here – not that United rightly wants to sell as many seats as they can. They just need to ‘appear’ proactive now, until the masses have moved on to be vigilantes about the next hot topic.

    Hey, but at least it’s something to talk about while everyone sits at home instead of going to work or spending money in their community.

  32. United should have been clearer about the policy from the beginning, but I don’t think they were necessarily rude in their interaction with Ben, just not fake-friendly as one so often encounters. Instead of getting so indignant over airline policies that will likely affect very few people, why not direct your ire at the CDC and public officials like de Blasio and Barbot who insisted that people go about their usual business and not wear masks out of fear of depleting hospital PPE supplies. They knew full well that masks are quite effective in preventing the spread of the virus. Instead of having a panic induced lockdown, enacted in large part because of witnessing an American Wuhan in New York, we could be going about our lives in relative normalcy with masks, proper hygiene and social distancing.

  33. “Blocking” is a common industry term for the exact practice United is implementing, restricting the advance seat assignment of seats. “Capping” a flight would indicate implementing actual capacity controls to limit the number of seats sold. Most airlines have implemented the former, while some (JetBlue) have implemented the latter.

    In practice, flights are so empty that I doubt this will be a frequent issue. This type of policy gives gate agents more flexibility to seat or reseat people in a way that’s actually conducive to social distancing, which is a net positive. Plus, if you’re choosing to fly in the middle of a pandemic, you bear some responsibility for that choice.

    Most of the comments on this post — as with almost every COVID-related post on OMAAT — are borderline unhinged and devoid of common sense.

  34. Statements are misleading when people are misled.

    If reasonable people having read the news release and looked at the drawing conclude that what is being promised is that the seats shown are being blocked and not offered for sale, then if that is not the case it’s the writer, not the reader who is at fault.

    Whether United intended to misled passengers into purchasing tickets with the apparent promise of blocked seats or not isn’t clear but it’s hard to see where any reasonable person reading that United is “limiting seat selections in all cabins, so customers won’t be able to select seats next to each other or middle seats where available” would realize that what they think is being said isn’t because of one word, “customers.”

    That standard isn’t whether a lawyer going through the language would understand the meaning but what regular folk would. Between the language and the pictures the impression that is being projected does not jive with what is on offer. When you try and fool people into a transaction based on misinformation, it’s actionable.

    United is wrong. That they don’t see that, admit the mistake and correct it speaks to their character which is far more damning than the original mistake.

    Kudos to Lucky for calling them out.

  35. I do think United was being misleading. This is disappointing that they are not trying to even keep up with their competitors to protect the health of their passengers.

    But what do you expect of the airline that kills dogs and beats up its passengers.

  36. I love how adamant United is to provide a correction that literally makes them look worse to customers. There’s a reason why United has the rep they have.

  37. United are scum, not enforcing any social distancing at all, and the first Ben commenter in this thread is a Untied sycophant and idiot.

  38. I am baffled about people who are baffled by the depravity of US airlines. Basically it’s a war between the consumer and the airline with the latter generally obfuscatory with their product and service obligations and quick with their legal teams to pinch consumer $

  39. @ George — It’s not salvation, it’s the only alternative we have in absence of mass testing, tracing, and supported isolation practices. A vaccine would be ideal, effective treatment would be great, mass testing and tracing would protect most of the population. It’s only the lack of all of that causing us to resort to the oldest disease-prevention tactic in civilization — a high wall with a narrow gate. https://onemileatatime.com/covid-19/

  40. Wow!…LOL,
    With many cities imposing “Stay-at-Home”
    regulations,….so many of you have turned into a bunch of negative, complaining wooses who obviously have nothing constructive nor positive to do with your free time.

  41. Your interpretation would be the same most people would have i think. However and with upmost respect, if you shared all the interactions you had with the UA person and see that as extremely rude, you should question how self entitled you’ve become. You are equals and that’s exactly how he/she treated you.

  42. @James N – WOW, just WOW. Assume your degree in science/medicine/research has allowed you to find the facts to back this up? Convince me. If you really think it’s a sham, have a look at the stats for Sweden compared to countries like Australia and New Zealand. I’ll make it easy for you: Sweden has 192 deaths per million population right now, the other two countries have 3 per million. Sweden still has no social distancing practices in place, where Australia and New Zealand have quite stringent restrictions in place. I know what I trust …

    @Thomas – unfortunately we can’t buy facemasks or sanitising wipes due to shortages. I consider myself lucky to still have a job, and one that doesn’t force me to travel.

  43. Shouldn’t the FC seats on the 2×2 config both be window seats to promote maximum distancing? Guess that was the tip-off….. what jokers!

  44. Good god, based upon United’s press release and statements to you thats not a policy at all then. What a sham!

  45. For all the people who keeps saying social distancing isn’t perfect, we know. The point is it’s better than NOT distancing yourself. And it’s not binary. It’s not like at 5.99 feet it’s 0% effective, and at 6.00 feet it’s suddenly 100% effective. So being 1 seat away is better than sitting shoulder to shoulder, even if it’s not 6 feet.

    Also @AdamH, we DO expect airlines to contribute to social distancing, even if it hurts their bottom line and even if they have to turn away some of those demand. Grocery stores are letting in a small number of people at a time, even if there’s demand. Restaurants are closed for dine in, even if some people would dine in if given the option. So yeah, airlines are expected to sacrifice for the greater good as well, just like everyone else.

  46. @Chet We’re not complaining, but pointing out that United is misleading the public and should be held to account.

    Are you in favor of deceptive trade practices, whether by an airline or anyone else?

  47. “…steps to promote social distancing on all United and United Express flights by making some temporary changes to seat assignments…” led me to believe I could book with confidence knowing once I’ve selected one of the very few available seats, there will be an empty seat beside me. The later interaction you had with them clarifies both you and I were sadly mistakenly misled by them.

  48. To the “Ben” who said “No airline is going to let a seat go unfilled, ESPECIALLY during times like this.”

    You are mistaken. Delta has committed to reducing AU well below capacity, blocking middle seats, and possibly blocking rows.

  49. AA DL AS the don’t care about money …. sure……..the are all the same the are in business to make money, right now AA DL AS Maybe the keep middle seat block because not many people in the plane but wait until the business pick up little bit and let see if the going to have the middle seat block each row
    I don’t think so $$$$$$$

  50. Sorry Ben, you’re in the wrong. The way I initially read it is the way your follow up post here has confirmed. You just made assumptions about what they said. This is likely due to your reading of other policies so you were thinking a certain way.

    I don’t agree with the way they’ve subsequently described some things – but for example a couple/family travelling together is a very sensible reason for all seats to be used.

  51. I guess the safest and best thing for us all to do is to never leave our houses and then we won’t get sick. The airlines can all just shut down, shed a hundred thousand jobs, I mean at this point what is another hundred thousand people on welfare right? Then none of us will ever have to worry about how crappy the airlines are, how crappy they are to customers or what they are trying to do to keep people safe. onemileatatime.com would disappear because who is going to care about a travel website when no one is traveling right?
    Let them all fail and then we can turn our attention to the next service industry that doesn’t meet up to our impossible standards for service. I would recommend we all just take a deep breath and realize businesses both large and small are just trying to figure out to survive in this pandemic. In the big scheme of life does it really matter if you get your free upgrade or not? Stepping off soap box.

  52. This puts United’s anti l-customer policies in high relief. It is one thing to be anti-customer about all of your general business dealings. I can mostly put up with that given that I exchange relatively small sums of money to fly across continents. But being anti-customer to the point of misleading on health and safety is quite another matter. Those seat diagrams say it all. United breaks guitars, assaults customers, and lies.

  53. @James – I’m working in an organisation that receives information from Govt sources, national and international, so that we can delivery essential services to the homeless and at risk populations in our city. Please do not call me ignorant simply because I disagree with you.

  54. Ben,

    I understood it as you did, what else is new airlines screwing people over.

    I am booked this summer on WestJet LGA-YYZ and got an email last week saying I was rebooked, my new routing is LGA-ATL-YYZ. I’m not flying from NY to Toronto via Atlanta. I called and the wait time was 3-5 hours. Contacted WestJet via Twitter and got a nonsense response. The routing is unacceptable and I believe I am entitled to a refund. For now I have been Bonvoyed by WestJet.

  55. Depending on the Communications Department to clearly convey policy is like going to HR when your boss gropes you—they’re both going to defend only the immediate, short-term interests of the company.

  56. @ Ben — Wow, do they always speak to you with such a bossy tone? They make it sound like you are their employee. Kinda rude if you ask me.

  57. I do agree with you that they made it sound as if you have an obligation to fix it. Which I don’t think you do and that is incredibly rude on their part.

  58. I believe in clear communication, and the UA communication could not have been any clearer. It was not vague (there were diagrams), and it was not at all misleading.

    This is pretty par for the course at UA. I’m not surprised at their reaction. Typical. Bozos.

    I will thus social distance myself from UA and just not fly them. Period. And, no, there is no vagueness in what I just said about staying away from UA!

  59. So how many of you complaining about United being “worst airline ever” are flying in the next 2-6 weeks? If not, why the anger? I question your intellect if you think that extra open seat is really gonna do much to protect you. That being said, if you haven’t booked a trip, you should! Imagine the horror if you no longer have an airline to complain about. The social distance shaming has to happen eventually – Rip off the Bandaid and visit that friend you haven’t seen in a few years. If you go to the grocery store or a pharmacy or a liquor store, you can’t get on a plane.

  60. Three things:

    1. The reply from United makes sense when it comes to family. My interpretation is that they are actually not blocking adjacent seats, but will give them only to those traveling as a group.

    2. A big issue is that basically if somebody books a First Class seat, there is a possibility another passenger receives an upgrade at the gate and they will sit next to you, unless the upgraded passenger gives us the upgrade?

    3. A correction to the readers that said no airline would block some seats. That’s completely incorrect. Most airlines in Europe are doing that.

  61. Who even cares… if the person behind you sneezes and you breathe , you’ll pick up whatever they go, same goes for the person 2 seats to your right or 1 seat to your right. It is false sense of security having the open middle seat.

  62. Since UA issued the press release which itself can be interpreted as an “advertisement”, I would file a formal a complaint to the D.O.T. and let them review and determine if the press release as written is deceptive and that certain seats will be “blocked” and explain industry terminology to passengers that this is not the same as “capped” when UA has responded to you stating that is not what their press release states.

    I’m certain the D.O.T. team will get a kick on reviewing and then forwarding to UA for clarification/changes and and possibly responding to the author of the complaint in regard to social distancing procedures/policies vs. the many thousands of complaints regarding UA not voluntarily providing refunds!

    747_BRANIFF_PLACE

  63. Wow, what an arrogant reply from United…

    It’s unbelievable that the person who wrote that response to you has their job because they’re supposed to be good at what they do.

  64. I wish United would go bankrupt there such a bad airline. Take taxpayer money/bailouts and treat us like trash.

  65. Social distancing on a plane is a complete joke unless you have one of Singapore’s suites. Even if you’re six feet apart, everyone crowds on the way on and off.

  66. @Ryan if anyone coughs without covering or sneezes on me in public they are getting knocked out regardless of their gender. That’s the new reality.

    We all know what to do moving forward as the country starts reopening. Masks, hand sanitizer , six feet apart , etc.

    There’s Americans out there with negative bank accounts right now by no fault of their own. So put down your pineapple martinis.

  67. From United’s internal daily email: The new changes include:

    Restricting advanced seat selection for adjacent seats in all cabins. This includes middle seats where available, and alternating window and aisle seats when seats are in pairs.
    Boarding fewer customers at a time to allow for more distance during the boarding process. We will maintain existing boarding groups and priority boarding, but meter customer boarding to minimize crowding in gate area and on the jet bridge.
    Processing Complimentary Premier Upgrades at the departure gate in priority order

  68. What’s remarkable here is the amount of people whom believe that social distancing even applies on an aircraft.

    You’re in a metal tube. An open middle seat does in no way guarantee you’re 6ft away from the next human being.

    Opposite aisle seats? You’re not 6ft apart.

    Wear your mask, bring gloves and Clorox wipes. Manage your health and safety yourself and don’t let any airline do it for you.

    AA and DL also “block”. But a block only means it’s blocked from assignment, not from sale.

  69. If not for all the people who would lose their jobs, would anybody actually care if United went under at this point? Worst airline in the country.

  70. Bloggers: Read a press release, write a post.

    Journalists: Read a press release, call the airline, ask what they really mean. It’s called an “interview.”

  71. So you honestly think that airlines can afford to not fill planes if the demand calls for it? Do you not understand history of airlines Ben? This could cause major airlines to go bankrupt. Travel demand is the lowest it’s been in history. I’m not sure why anyone interpreted this the way you did. You cannot BLOCK seats for no reason. Not to mention families or couples who want to sit together. I think United is doing a great job trying to socially distance passengers, but they have to be financially strategic as an airline as well. You should be ashamed of yourself trying to bash businesses during unprecedented times. There is a bigger picture in all of this, and it’s suppose to be, that we are more kind and understanding.

  72. “Everyone will have an empty seat next to them” – that’s the intent and the likely outcome, but we don’t guarantee it.“

    Hummm. Sounds like legal asked for the clarification.

  73. @Lucky
    As a travel blogger and frequent flyer I am surprised that you don’t know the difference between a blocked seat and an unsold seat. A blocked seat merely means that you cannot select it when booking. Seats are blocked all the time and can be unblocked by an airport agent for various reasons.
    If United had said that they were not selling those seats, then that would have been entirely different. However, that is not what they ever implied so therefore your interpretation was completely wrong.
    Your misinformation and subsequent “how dare they!” attitude is so inflammatory as evidenced by the comments.
    Is your blog really about providing useful information or just inciting hatred toward airlines? If it’s the latter, you’re succeeding.

  74. I’m just tired of being told about ‘safety’ from airline staff (as a tactic to do the bare minimum) and then United Has this misleading policy that sounds ‘safe’ only to find out they will abandon it to sell more seats. We are fools for giving them money with so few strings attached. Vote out the politicians that gave them money. Let them fail.

  75. Whether or not these policies make any difference, people need to feel more comfortable flying. I cannot fathom why, with a trickle of passengers going through security, they aren’t taking temperatures and preventing those with temperatures from flying. I know people can not show symptoms and still spread but the appearance of being proactive calms peoples nerves and a temperature is a major red flag. Why are masks not mandatory on all flights with all crew and passengers? Those arguing you can’t social distance on a plane…true. But a seat between you and another passenger is more comforting than a full aircraft of people with half not wearing any masks. I want the airlines to recover as much as anyone, but they won’t because nobody is doing anything concrete to give the appearance proactive steps are being done to minimize exposure as much as possible on airplanes and at airports. Maybe behind the scenes cleaning is better but people at home watching the news need to see policies being implemented and enforced. Until then, you’re going to have extremely nervous flying public and crews raising alarm bells. I was reading in Taiwan with international arrivals, people get their temperatures taken like 5 times as they proceed through customs and into the airport all the while being forced to take antibacterial hand sanitizers until their rings about slide off. Everyone in the airport must wear masks. Temperatures are taken before boardings. Not just Taiwan but many countries. We can slowly open up and get things slowly running, but they have to be methodical and smart and enforced. I have no idea what’s going on in this country at the moment. It’s a free for all.

  76. Kind of misleading, but in the end it doesn’t matter because
    a) no one is really flying if they are concerned about getting sick
    b) sitting in front of someone is probably just as bad as sitting next to them, so whats the difference
    However, they should have some policy because people will start to fly more because this is the new normal for the next year or so.
    United and American could learn a lot from taking a flight on Southwest airlines.

  77. I’m gonna say UA did everything about right up until the ‘official’ pictures.

    There is no denying that. UA can get away with it if it wasn’t for the picture. Without the picture I would say @Lucky is overthinking, with the picture UA is a sham.

    And for people who underestimate the effect of bad PR, go look at the number of comments on this post vs the original post, as of now over 7 times more reaction.

    I also think this isn’t the last of this saga so keep your popcorns hot.
    United 0 : 1 Bloggers

  78. @Sexy_kitten7 your idea of d/g at the gate might work for the premier upgrade, but that ignores the fact that many of us pay for F. Why should someone’s free seat be more important than the social distancing of the revenue premium cabin?

  79. So I still don’t get it. So basically I will not find out if I can manage social distancing until basically the door closes (presuming last minute standbys can be seated next to me)??

    So how does this actually work? Let’s say all of the seats, with the exception of the middle rows are occupied. Now, I log on to make a booking. Will I or will I not be able to purchase a seat on that flight? Does that mean I will be seated in one of the middle rows, or will they be offloading people due to overbooking?

    Sure as hell would be pissed if I get corona in addition to the bad case of the shits, which is the norm due to the crap food they serve.

  80. For those of you arguing that United would be mad to not sell seats if there is demand – that’s up to them.

    What is unacceptable is if they create said demand by misleading/lying to consumers as to how they are going to mitigate covid risk by implementing certain measure that, will only be used if the plane is near empty anyway.

  81. First – To the person that said way to go United putting profits before the well being of their customer I ask what profit? As a company they lost $1 billion in the first quarter of this year. If you are concerned about your well being don’t fly.
    Second – Most mainline flights are going out with about 15 maybe 20 people on long haul flights. If any flight was sold out of aisle and middle seats I would expect any airline to sell the tickets.
    Third – First class is filled with business flyers who are not traveling now.

    I don’t understand the need to beat down something that is already beaten down. The essence of the release was, this is the plan and we will do our best to keep with this plan. This industry and especially United and its employees have been through enough the past 20 years.

  82. Hey Ben – great article and must confess I find this nature of communication from united, very consistent with how they handle customers. As a 1K customer I still dread flying with united because their corporate culture manifests in such a way that customers feel like an inconvenience (not unlike the responses you got). 80% of interactions with united staff feel like they’re “doing me a favor” rather than engaging in customer service.

  83. Drive, don’t fly. Driving will help oil prices. Plus when you drive you can take as much luggage as you want no additional fees.

  84. For those asking about DL – from the website under social distancing: “reducing the total number of passengers per flight”. I take this as they are not filling flights to capacity.

  85. Wow, for once looks like United is the one getting dragged by the passengers instead of the other way around.

  86. So much hysteria over distancing on planes

    There have been no superspreader events involving an airplane cabin – think about that given how easily traceable passengers and locations of passengers are

    Even the case of a New Zealand flight attendant who spread without symptoms only had confirmed cases at a wedding, not the passengers

    Have people wear masks and get on with it

  87. The best test for any virus mitigation effort os what I will now call “The Fart Test.”
    It is this: if you could smell a fart from someone, i mean a really bad one, then you are at risk of infection.
    This works for masks and distances.
    If there’s a guy in front of you, with his body 18 inches from your facial air inlet, and he farts – can you smell it?
    If so then he is too close _and_ your mask aint working.
    Also behind you.
    And this – we ALL know airplane air is a closed-loop recirculation system. Distance between faces on the plane does not matter. All the air is collected and combined and recirculated around. If one person on the plane is infected – everyone gets a dose.
    If you are getting on a plane these days – you are the problem.

  88. If the general public want a middle seat blocked in coach, then the government should mandate that the middle seat remains block, so all airlines are in the same page and can increase ticket prices accordingly without fear of being in disadvantage to other airlines.
    Problem solved.
    It will come at a price.

  89. ingolf – airplanes use HEPA filtration – which doesn’t filter odor but will filter viral particles

    The absence of airplane cabin multiple case transmission on a single flight is deafening

  90. @ Greg, any idea when/how often the HEPA filters have to be changed and if they are being changed?? How would we know? There is a shortage of PPE, maybe there is a shortage of HEPA filters. Its hard to trust the airlines when I feel that I have been consistently screwed by them.

  91. Airlines are going bankrupt due to the lack of travelers. If they can fill up an aircraft, they will… Duh!
    If you are afraid to fly, don’t Go!!
    It’s as simple as that. What a waste of time listening to your rant!

  92. @m – don’t fly then – others may be given the freedom to choose otherwise. While you’re at it go snitch on people walking along the beach alone.

    Find a situation where 6 passengers on one flight (just one row) fell ill with COVID19

  93. In Denmark the government has requested all public transportation providers, trains, planes and busses, to sell only half their seats. Everyone complied but one, Flixbus, who was then forced to comply.
    The U.S. Government ought to do the same!
    Thank you again for a great blog, Lucky!
    Stay safe and healthy.

  94. @ Greg, get a grip! I posed a question as to how often HEPA filters might be changed and after being burned by the airlines many times I don’t have faith.

    Why would I report people walking alone on the beach? Have a drink or do a little meditation and chill out.

  95. Interestingly enough on a AC flight just yesterday the only soul onboard removing her face mask was the flight attendant
    Yes it was Montreal to Chicago so if anyone at AC is reading this, take action!
    You make me wear the mask – I would anyway – then fire the FA who increases the risk of spreading the “Rona” and is also a person exempt from any government rules as an FA. Isn’t that special. And that’s for UA staff as well… just as a side note…
    So why are airlines making this big deal out of everything??
    So when the lawsuits are filed – and they will be – they have documented taking reasonable steps to counter the spread and really anyone flying now – I work as a transplant courier so certain patients don’t die from something other than Corona, sorry cannot be more specific due to confidentiality rules – knows the risks and assumes them. Not that a dumb ass hyped up jury won’t be persuaded to award some phony damages….
    So that’s my belief, and I’ll challenge any airline to prove me wrong…

    And @David – about beating up passengers …. Dr.Dao was on a Republic Airlines aircraft with a Republic crew, which just like other regional operators flies for multiple flag carriers. He had accepted a voucher to get off the plane, went back to his seat and was beat up by Chicago Airport Police…
    I can only say the Captain should have ordered everyone off the plane and the arrest would have been a doozy….
    but that’s 20/20 looking back and we are all wiser with that perspective….

  96. Face it Ben. Are you really surprised? United is crap and I have Platinum status. It is uncommon to be treated like a human being by this corporation whether booking, waiting to board, flying, or making press inquiries.

  97. Because I live in Palm Springs, United has been my carrier of choice until last year. There were so many reasons–but among the most important were rude employees and inconsistency. So I find none of this surprising.

  98. You were off base. There isn’t an airline out there that wouldn’t fill the plane if given the opportunity. However that’s unreasonable in the current market. Very few flights are more then 25% occupied. The flexibility allows families to sit next to each other while giving most people the opportunity to sit without someone next to them.

  99. What ever you should look in the mirror, it’s people just be negative about everyone else efforts, I worked with United and have taken all I can to protect those around me customers and coworkers an see it as an important part of my job.

  100. I live about 25 minutes from O’Hare and 90 minutes from Midway. I have about 3 times as many UAL miles as I have on American. Recently my May trip and cruise to/from Hawaii was canceled.
    All parties to my trip cheerfully refunded or will refund my money. Hawaiian Airlines (who I am still dealing with) and United steadfastly refused to refund my airfare despite the fact that the State of Hawaii is under a 14 day mandatory quarantine and The RCI cruise could not dock in Vancouver, negating my flight home to Chicago. I had a wonderful time speaking with UAL’s representatives and supervisors who insisted that I can only rebook, no later than one year after purchasing the tickets. After writing and emailing Oscar Munoz, UAL CEO, the policy miraculously changed with UAL issuing a credit card refund. This has left such a bad taste in my mouth that when I have exhausted my UAL miles, I will either only fly American out of O’Hare or travel the 1-1/2 hours down to Midway and fly Southwest. UAL is dead to me.

  101. It was an arrogant tone from United. I get that they may still see Ben as someone who in the past cheated and was banned from the airline, but still the PR person was unprofessional and should have more patience. I had thought the culture of United had improved, but this shows they still cling to the old ways.

    The graphic is misleading and I agree Ben should compare UA against other airlines using the term unsold vs blocked to account for any shennanigans at the gate or last min that goes against what is depicted in the graphic.

  102. Seen the video of the packed AA flight?
    UA isn’t a sham. If UA is a sham, what is AA’s blatant lying? No seats were unsold. No middle seats blocked.

  103. All airlines should provide a free (included in the price of the ticket) M95 mask upon boarding and require all passengers to wear them .

  104. United needed to address social distancing, since everyone else was doing it.

    Then they proceeded to mislead the public about their commitment to passenger safety, in both words and pictures.

    They have every right to book their flights full, but **** them for lying about it.

  105. Ben,
    You are absolutely correct in your assessment of the communications group. They are as belligerent as they can be, but remember this, “all that we do is guided by the United core 4.” Now you know why those of us in the know, can tell you what a farce it is to behold!!

  106. I continue to be astounded by both the Communications and the Social Media groups at United. It seems that they have learned so little over recent years – spending time now producing clickbait articles and reposting/sharing posts from a consistent set of Instagram Influencers, whom they compensate to feature their product, or a set of Flight Attendants that they have on their internal “Digital Influencers” team. It’s quite sad, really.

    It’s been fascinating to lay out the communications from all of the Majors in response to this crisis side by side, and compare timing, tonality, accuracy, vantage point.

    UA has just been so off on Comms and Social Media at every single turn, and many won’t forget.

  107. The diagrams don’t change anything. They visualise what is stated in the text. The keyword is “selection” however.

    Nowhere does it say they cannot or will not be assigned.

    I’m surprised how many don’t understand what selection is/means.

  108. Just got off UA 475 IAD LAX as second leg of repatriation flight. Front of plane empty, back of plane packed. $150 upsell to move up front.

  109. BLOCKING does NOT mean that the seats are not being assigned to passengers. They are initially blocked, for different reasons, but are subject to being assigned at some point. It is misleading.

  110. @Mike that’s a good point about paid F vs CPU. Each would be free to d/g but the consequences would be very different. The paid pax would likely only recover the difference between their fare and the cheapest coach ticket available on the purchase date whereas the CPUer would not be out any money/value. With that being said, booking an orange or blue or even dark blue seat does not entitle one to an empty adjacent seat. As they say on FT, if you want F, buy F. And if you want an EAS, buy EAS. One could also argue from an economic perspective that if the paid F pax really values space, they ought to gladly self d/g because the benefits far outweigh the risks. Conversely, if the CPUer really values free drinks, they’ll take the upgrade because the benefits far outweigh the risks. The above supposes that coach is empty. If coach is already 2/3 full, well then our discerning F pax would really be in a pickle. I guess they can take the next flight or swim if space is that important.

  111. I’ve always booked a window and an aisle for my wife and I, leaving the middle seat open. If somebody actually shows up for that seat they never refuse trading with my wife for the aisle. I doubt you’re going to find many people sitting between two strangers if the strangers are a couple.

  112. I noticed that prices for NYC-LON in late June doubled overnight one day this week, could this be United making people buy two seats so that they can leave 30% of the seats empty? They get to sound so self righteous and we get to pay for it!

  113. They made it pretty clear that they would fill the seats in cases where families want to sit next to each other. You can’t really be that dense can you? Seems like you are just out to get certain airlines and promote others.

  114. Yep. AA and DL sending out full flights despite their social distancing announcements. But UA gets the bad press from onemileatatime
    Typical.
    Boring.

  115. Due to a family emergency, just flew direct from DC to LA with United under the premise that we would be social distancing for the flight with said empty middle seats.

    The flight was full, and I have never been more furious.

  116. Well next time Emma rent a plane by yourself nobody’s would be in the plane
    How many people on the plane 20 or less ?
    The load factor for the all airlines are less then 1%,

  117. I got an email from United on April 30th, that said, “We’re automatically blocking middle seats to give you enough space on board”. Sounded great. I went online to book a flight today and this popped up on the screen, “We’re promoting social distancing by limiting advance selection of middle seats.” Then that screen vanished, so it is very hard to find. Fortunately, I was so shocked, I repeated what I had done and got a photo of it that time. Wish I could paste it here. They obviously didn’t want anyone to really see what they had said.
    I wish we had another choice besides United. I guess I may have to drive.

  118. SL,

    United has changed direction, or misinformed so much information over last 2 months, it’s hard to believe! Your comment is just like Josh Earnest, the UAL communications guru, when he told us all that US ambassador was killed because of a comic strip. The entire leadership at United today, is as dishonest as the day is long. It’s time for them to put up, or leave.

    If they were honorable, they would be first to take a pay cut, and eliminate 30% of the executive group. Then only collect 70% of their base pay. For 3 years minimum, oand until RPM’s get to 90% of 2018 levels. Talented people would be able to accept a challenge such as this. I’m an investor in United also, over 10 years.

  119. I interpreted this how you did. They want you to book assuming they’ll abide by social distancing guidelines, then screw you over when you show up and it’s basically too late for you to do anything about it. The airlines have been treating customers like garbage for years, I have zero sympathy for their business challenges now. They aren’t special.

  120. Jen. Please take the train is better for you all the airlines are very bad, you are the only good person in this world

  121. Ben – why do you care? I mean, the risk is so low as to be negligible. We’ve always faced the potential to be exposed to germs and viruses from fellow travelers. Let’s get over the unreasonably restrictive measures put in place for this once-in-a-century (at most) event. Time to get back to business as usual.

  122. Sweet Christ, commenters here are even more massive cocks than United. Sure, let’s just say fuck it and go back to normal! What could possibly go wrong

  123. Good point rfk…
    Safety First, always!
    So let’s stay on the ground and stop flying because no plane has ever crashed while at the gate….
    Point is if we let the airlines croak more people will drive and more people will die in car crashes since flying is the safest mode of transport per mile traveled.
    So no it’s not that simple and those who want to stay “SAFE” stay home… works even in baseball and then you are OUT nevertheless….
    Life was meant to be lived and if you don’t want to participate then don’t !!
    And for those in the risk groups, if nobody is productive there will be no resources to take care of anyone in any way so stay the hell home if you don’t feel SAFE 🙂
    So things can and will go wrong and it’s always been that way
    This from someone who volunteers for the kind of activity where you run into a burning building while everyone else runs out…. Now you might understand my perspective a bit better 🙂
    Have an awesome safe weekend – I mean it!

  124. I’ve only read some of the comments, so I may be repeating what’s been said by others…

    The bottom line in my opinion is exactly what you asked about: what people thought the United press release meant.
    If many (most?) people interpreted the press release as you originally explained it (I was one such person), it doesn’t matter if United was trying to mislead or intended the release to mean something quite different. People’s expectations are based on what they *understand* policies to be.
    I don’t see how it’s in United’s interest for people to discover that their expectations were completely wrong, especially in a way that’s likely to cause great anxiety. Such a discovery undermines customers’ trust in the airline/brand and is likely to lead people to henceforth choose other airlines whenever possible. Recovering customers’ trust can take a very long time (long enough to drive a company out of business).

    United telling you that you’ve misunderstood the press release is showing (again) their tone-deafness about customer relations. If people are misunderstanding their statement, they are the ones who should be issuing a clarification. Any clarification by you would naturally follow without chastisement from United. Of course, under-performing people’s expectations is bad enough; should there end up being any identifiably greater transmission of the novel coronavirus on United than on airlines with better seating policies, United will have a deserved public relations nightmare on their hands.

  125. Great points Andrew, managing PR nightmares does not seem to be United’s biggest strength anyway.
    Considering the fact that the pertinent details of the Dao incident are that the aircraft was a Republic operated UX flight, Dao ran back into the aircraft after accepting being accommodated on the next flight to Indy, the bullies who beat him to a pulp were Chicago Airport Security, the Captain failed to order all passengers off the flight which would have made him the only remaining passenger without recourse in any way shape or form disobeying the captains orders and last but not least the botched handling by Oscar, we could only hope a lot of learning would occur.
    Unfortunately it seems otherwise, at least as far as seeking to be understood and then also seeking to understand the reaction to the announcement of the “seating policy”.
    A United response along the lines of “we apologize for leading you to this understanding, so to further clarify…” would have gone a long way.
    As far as expecting an airline – any airline – to do anything to cut into their profitability Such as blocking seats over short or long term while they are all fighting to survive, I’d have to say based on past experience I would not have expected that but to point fingers at those who force the clarification is just crappy, period.

    Corona is here to stay and given the unknown possible carcinogenic side effects of the Intense cleaning procedures, the processed packaged food and the accumulation of contamination by breathing through a mask and the reduced oxygen intake in an environment that’s by design not very oxygen rich I wonder what the net mortality will be after we get the real numbers when more people have completed antigen tests and then we compare it to other causes of death.
    Then again that would be good news and I am not holding my breath that the media will want to give up the ad revenue the doomsday broadcasts are producing 🙂

  126. When you have a political hack, as you voice for a corporation, this is the result.

  127. It shows you that people don’t have a whole Lot of sense if they’re getting on an airplane filled with doctors and nurses that just came out of the New York ICU with all the virus infected patients one might ask did they go through a 14 day quarantine. it would seem to me got a lemonade in the middle seat would not have much bearing sitting in a plane with that many exposed people just a thought are we all that crazy or is it just me who would want to take that Big of risk

  128. It shows you that people don’t have a whole Lot of sense if they’re getting on an airplane filled with doctors and nurses that just came out of the New York ICU with all the virus infected patients one might ask did they go through a 14 day quarantine. it would seem to me that eliminating the middle seat would not have much bearing sitting in a plane with that many exposed people just a thought are we all that crazy or is it just me who would want to take that Big of a risk

  129. I am sitting on a plane at this very moment, awaiting takeoff. It is almost entirely filled to capacity. I am seated directly next to a stranger. This is not the experience I was anticipating.

  130. Mike there is an extremely high likelihood you received a message in the app or an email from United that your flight was expected to be very full and a link embedded for a free change to another less full flight. So what exactly did you expect by not making that change after likely being told about how full the flight was going to be? Or did you not read your email or check your app before the flight? This is here to stay and your other choice is to drive or stay put instead of changing flights. Not really sure why you are so surprised but I’d love to know. Safe flight!!

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 *