How United Airlines Is Helping Passengers Social Distance

Filed Under: United

While many people are social distancing, there are some people still flying. Hopefully it’s for good reason, but for the time being many airlines are still operating some flights, and for the most part there are at least some people on them (even if they’re mostly empty).

Airlines are taking precautions in different ways

We’ve seen different airlines take different precautions in light of the current situation. Many airlines have reduced onboard service and given their crew more protective gear, and airlines like Alitalia are even requiring passengers to wear face masks, unless there’s at least one meter between passengers (which seems like an odd policy, but…).

But still, in general it can be hard to social distance on planes, especially given that airline cabins keep getting tighter.

United Airlines helping passengers social distance

While I question the execution of this, I at least appreciate the concept. United Airlines is asking gate agents to do what they can to help passengers social distance. As it’s explained in a memo to employees:

Social distancing on the aircraft: In light of recent direction from the CDC to practice social distancing, we would like to give customers the opportunity to do so onboard our aircraft when flight loads permit. When feasible (e.g., light loads and time permits), our CSRs will be proactively reseating customers prior to door closure. This will decrease the anxiety of travelers and allow us to support accurate records and weight and balance of the aircraft.

This is a great concept, though of course it all comes down to gate agents to execute on this. Given that they’re usually overworked, I question how often we’ll actually see gate agents proactively reseat people.

For that matter, I wish gate agents in general would be more deliberate with seat assignments, especially last minute for standbys. But that’s a whole different story…

United Airlines also asking passengers to practice good hygiene

In addition to this, United Airlines has added a pre-flight announcement, imploring passengers to practice good hygiene:

“At United, safety is our highest priority. During today’s flight, let’s all do our part to safeguard the health of each other. Please cover your mouth with a tissue if possible when sneezing and or coughing and use an air sickness bag located in the seatback pocket to dispose any items. If tissue is not available, please cover your nose and mouth with a bended arm. We truly appreciate your understanding and cooperation during this time.”

Bottom line

I appreciate the thought behind what United Airlines is doing here. It’ll be up to gate agents to make this happen, but hopefully with emptier flights that’s a possibility. From the perspective of an airline, it’s better for all of this to happen before departure for weight and balance.

This reminds me of back in the day when United would block middle seats for elite members, and they’d only be unblocked if the flight was full — good times!

Lufthansa has taken an initiative like this even further, by blocking all middle seats on flights from Germany.

To those who have flown in the past few days, what has your experience been with social distancing?

(Tip of the hat to @BrianSumers)

  1. GF flew Spirit yesterday and they were told at boarding to sit where they wanted to create space (except the big front seats I guess)

    Note that the app was still pushing seat upgrade fees and was lying about the seat map.

  2. Airlines should tell passengers to sit in odd number rows only Window or Aisle only, middle only if it is the same family.

    Many carriers can accomplish this by software , by blocking rows/seats when loads are ridiculously low. Especially basic economy and budget airlines where 90% of people do not pre pick a seat.

    Southwest could do this right at the gate

  3. I’m on a AA 737 tomorrow SAT-PHX. Seat map shows 30 people and there’s probably some basic economy unassigned seats. Upgrades are REALLY easy to come buy right now in all facets of travel. I’ve been 100% first class, hotel suites, and BMW’s for the past week.

  4. Across the pond, I flew LH a few times over the past couple weeks. A lot of people were upfront (really not sure why), while I was in the back with no one within 3 rows of me.

  5. United cancelled my flight ORD to BZN Saturday night, operational something. No reschedule yet and direct flights are gone beginning in April. FML.

  6. Can confirm – parents and sister/brotherinlaw/theirkids flew last week- they were already on vacation when things got bad. 25-30 on a 737 aircraft, separated by multiple rows between them.

  7. Why can’t airlines remove every other row of seats and give more leg room for all passengers?and still conform to the space needed.

  8. Flew Hong Kong express recently they seated everyone together on ten rows of an otherwise empty flight. They were trying to charge people extra to sit apart after bording when it was clear the flight had so many spare seats!!! Disgusting behaviour

  9. @ KEith: they could but it would cost a lot of $$$ for labor/approval costs. They are not about to do that.

  10. It’s bull shit I flew from FLL to ewr on Tuesday night united flight 2335. and first their were used tissues in the back seat pocket. They are not cleaning the planes throughly during the day between flights. Second passengers wanted to spread out but because them moved to a premium economy seat there were plenty of was not allowed unless they paid a 109 fee. It’s all fluff and they are not doing what they are saying.

  11. I flew to Denver from Newark 3/12 and the reverse on 3/17. Dramatic drop in passengers for the flight back, corresponding with the news. I kept seeing articles about changes in TSA regulations, not placing personal electronic items in a seperate bin, but neither airport heeded this change. Other than that, I was lucky. Smooth travel with United, and now self-isolating.

  12. Earlier this month when this was all starting to go down, the crew on my Southwest flight said to leave middle seats open since the flight load was only about 30%. No-one sat next to anyone on that flight.

  13. Yep – Hong Kong Express seats all passengers right next to each other as per policy. Then once they have made the passengers as uncomfortable as possible, they charge them to move seats. Disgusting in the best of times, unbelievable in current conditions.

  14. I flew United to San Diego. They clearly separated people. Most people have several rows between them before another passenger. In first there is no one beside me. No one for 2 rows behind and I person ahead of me. I was very thankful.

  15. I flew ORD to JAX on Tuesday afternoon on a basic economy ticket. United Airlines moved me up to economy plus and I have no status. I counted 23 passengers on the plane.

  16. This is not true at all. I flew on United a couple of days ago and they did not move anyone. As a matter of fact the entire section of preferred seating was open in the middle of the plane and they would not let anyone move unless you paid for preferred seating. We were all in close quarters in the back of the plane. No one was in the middle for the entire flight from LAX to Houston. I asked the flight attendant if they were really going to make everyone stay in the back of the plane with the current health concerns and they all said yes. Ypu can only move if you pay $134 per person. I have the pictures from the flight. I will never fly United again.

  17. Well at least the one good thing is that United won’t be pulling asian passengers off their flight physically. I know it’s terrible joke.

  18. Charge higher fares, guarantee more space – social distance.

    Be happy with lower load factors.

  19. I was a 1K for a couple of years running back in the good old days when the middle seat block was in effect …..almost forgot about how good that was…..thanks for the memories

  20. Flew United on Monday EWR-TPA. F was booked to 12/20. The only people that didn’t have an empty seat next to them in F were a pair of couples.

    Coach was booked to 40 on a 737-900. I didn’t look but each passenger could have had a set of three to themselves.

  21. Bill… what does your dumb joke/slightly racist comment have anything to do with this post? And seriously?

  22. Fiance flew RDU to EWR 3/18 and because the flight was so empty they put everyone in first class
    Then the transatlantic flights are being cancelled due to decrease in demand. A 7h flight on 787-10 went from 25% capacity two days before to 5 empty seats left due to rebooking everyone.
    Maybe this is true where capacity is really low, but schedules keep changing to consolidate flights.

  23. I flew United last weekend and there were only 14 passengers on the flight. Instead of allowing to us to spread out or even just stay in our original seats they actually made us all move to sit in the middle of the plane right next to each other. People were complaining and saying this was not social distancing and they had no response. This was very strange and uncomfortable.

  24. I found the comments about United airlines conflicting at best. I recently flew back home from New Orleans to Rochester New York and it was apparent that social distancing was practiced. Which I very much appreciated. I don’t know why this practice was in consistent on other flights.

  25. Its great that United is trying to separate their passengers but what are they doing with their employees? I am told that they have small poorly ventalated breakrooms with far too many employees bunched together. Thats a problem if true.

  26. Since prices are relatively low across the board for domestic flights, I just call up the airline and ask how many people are booked on the flight. This worked well last week but now loads are probably low across the board.

    I had a family member fly last week from LHR to DFW on an AA 777-300ER. The flight was completely full and there was another AA 777-200 5 minutes behind them on the same route. This was on Thursday a few hours after the European Ban was announced.

  27. On 2 Delta paid 1st Class flights passengers were upgraded to FILL 1st Class while coach was virtually empty. Social distancing okay for coach but not considered for 1st Class

  28. I had to fly home the other night for a family emergency in United. There was some social distancing however room for a lot more. My row was empty, but had folks in front and behind me. I saw the seat map and asked the gate agent that noted the above and asked if it was possible to love to an area that had more distance between guests. I pointed out there was a whole section in economy plus (not referring to first class) that had 3-4 rows with no one surrounding (also an overnight, so wasn’t looking for nor would there be food service. She looked, said I had a row to myself, despite people around me and would not change it. Upon boarding somone was in my seat and cause more undue interactions than needed. When you’re trying to be proactively cautious and conscience and thats the response… They obviously didn’t get the memo or care. Disappointing.

  29. Jet Blue isn’t practicing social distancing. On a flight 1165 on 3/20. (I hope someone from Jet Blue reads this) as I post this from BOS to RSW, the plane 70% empty.
    They herded most of the passengers in rows 7-10, all pretty much full. When I got on I asked if I could move to the empty seats, they gave me the weight balance routine. The problem is they did not move anyone from the back of the plane or the one traveler in the bulk head row.
    Once we were mid flight I tried to move again to the exit rows right behind me, the flight attended stated those seats we’re for Passengers who paid for them. It’s incredible the front 6 rows all but empty, you can’t sit in the exit rows, and this is how they intend to prevent the spread of the virus.

  30. The airlines should be fined for not properly social distancing and for trying to charge passengers more money for certain seats. It is traveling public that brought this virus to the airlines and cruse ships and now to our land. So it is critical that the airlines change their policies and keept the minimum 6 foot distance between passengers even if it means denying boarding on flights. the distancing needs to be mandatory. It is sad that are government has to be the one to institute these rules. Airlines as well as other businesses do not like government regulations, but this virus is a prime example of why we need regulations because big business does not take issues, safety and health seriously. These are unbelievably serious times and what’s more the cleanliness of the planes needs to continue into perpetuity. Prevention is the best control for viruses. I think the government needs to update requirements for the the cleaning process of the airplanes from now into perpetuity.

  31. Not true. I was on a United flight 2 days ago from Germany to SF and not only did they NOT try and separate seating (everybody was mostly center plane), but people who did try and move were told they had to pay extra for certain empty seats.

  32. Reading these posts almost makes me regret buying a United ticket. If it weren’t for the fact they are so darn cheap right now, and if I didn’t need to get somewhere, I’d stay home. Sounds like a mismanaged airline.

  33. I flew to Florida on United on March 20. Flight attendant was adamant that anyone wanting to change seats would be required to pay the premium associated with the seat. Consequently, no one moved, everyone was bunched together and multiple rows sat completely empty. Last night, I flew back. My flight was canceled and rebooked a couple times. When I stepped onto my connecting flight in Houston, the plane was packed. Clearly, United was canceling flights in order to fill one flight and save money. There were possibly a half dozen empty seats on the entire plane. Not sure how they can say they’re practicing social distancing guidelines when they had the plane packed to the gills. United has lost my business.

  34. We have scheduled and paid on United for a quick visit to California from Maui at the end of May. I wonder what policy United will have if Social Distancing is still in place at that time. Can United be held responsible if a passenger catches Covid 19 while on a United flight?

  35. On AA last LAX to PHL I had purchased a full fair 1st class ticket and was told the seat next to me would be blocked. Not true. It was full up front. I asked to be downgraded and have my $$ returned. They said no. I fought with gate agent and they finally released 1F to me.

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