Home Industry News Fall Flight Policies: Middle Seats and Ticket Flexibility

Fall Flight Policies: Middle Seats and Ticket Flexibility

This fall, US airlines continue to take different approaches to social distancing in the air while ticket flexibility starts to come to a close with most carriers.

Middle seats are hot topic this fall among airline carriers
Middle seats are hot topic this fall among airline carriers
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Despite record numbers of COVID-19 cases, airlines are back in the sky and have no plans to ground planes again. To help restore faith in flying, back in March each major US airline started allowing flexibility for new tickets purchased. They then continued to extend waivers for flight changes and cancellations throughout the entire summer. Now, as fall approaches, many of these flexible policies are changing.

Also back in late spring, each US airline pledged a commitment to health and safety in the skies and has since implemented new procedures to carry out these promises. Most new sanitization procedures are quite similar across airlines—electrostatic spraying, enhanced air filtration systems, more frequent cleaning of high-touchpoint areas, the requirement of face masks, and so forth. Yet a major difference remains how each airline is treating social distancing. Some blocked middle seats throughout the summer in the name of social distancing—and will continue to do so in the fall—while others started packing their planes in early summer and haven’t looked back since.

As fall approaches, here’s where each major US airline stands when it comes to the middle seat and new bookings, broken down by the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good: Southwest Airlines

Middle seat stance: Southwest has made a promise to keep “middle seats open through at least October 31 to provide customers more personal space onboard.” That said, customers traveling together can still sit together in a single row.

New bookings: Southwest’s policies remain as per usual. “Southwest Airlines never charges Customers a fee to change or cancel their flight. If a Customer’s plans change, or they decide they no longer want to travel, the funds used to pay for their flight can be applied to future travel —as long as they cancel their flight at least 10 minutes prior to the scheduled departure. The funds are valid for future travel up to one year from the original purchase date and must be used by the individual named on the ticket.” Also, “Customers’ funds that have expired or will expire between March 1, 2020 and September 7, 2020, will now expire September 7, 2022.” In addition, between now and December 15, these funds can be converted into Rapid Rewards points, which have no expiration date.

The Good: Delta Airlines

Middle seat stance: Delta has “[extended its] commitment to make more space for safer travel by blocking the selection of middle seats and capping seating in every cabin” through September 30. Seating is capped at 50% in first-class and domestic Delta One; 60% in the main cabin, Delta Comfort+, and Delta Premium Select; and 75% in international Delta One. Starting October 1 and until at least January 6, 2021, Delta will continue to block middle seats for parties of one or two but allow parties of three or more to occupy middle seats, if traveling together. In addition, Delta will increase the maximum capacity in main cabin from 60% to 75% during this time while first class capacity restrictions will remain at 50% until at least October 31.

New bookings: No change or award redeposit fees for tickets booked through August 31, 2020.

The Good: JetBlue

Middle seat stance: JetBlue has announced “blocking middle seats on larger planes (and most aisle seats on smaller ones) for all flights through October 15, 2020.”

New bookings: No change or cancellation fees for tickets booked through October 15, 2020.

The Good: Alaska Airlines

Middle seat stance: Through at least October 31, 2020, Alaska Airlines is “limiting the number of guests on [its] flights and blocking seats. Gate agents may reassign seats to create more space between guests or to seat families together.”

New bookings: No change/cancel fees for tickets booked through September 8, 2020.

The Bad: American Airlines

Middle seat stance: Since July 1 American Airlines has not blocked middle seats nor applied capacity controls. As a courtesy, until the end of September the airline “will continue to notify customers and allow them to move to more open flights when available, all without incurring any cost.” In addition, “If space is available once boarding is complete—taking into consideration any aircraft weight or balance restrictions—customers may move to another seat within their ticketed cabin subject to availability.”

New bookings: No change fees for tickets booked through September 8, 2020, if traveling after January 1, 2021. No change fees for tickets booked by September 30, 2020, for travel through December 31, 2020. Both apply to AAdvantage® award tickets.

The Ugly: United Airlines

Middle seat stance: As if United Airlines didn’t already have a reputation for putting its customers last, the airline’s failure to ever block middle seats or reduce capacity has again demonstrated that the airline’s bottom line is more important than passenger health and safety. As per usual, expect packed planes and no extra social distancing.

New bookings: No change fees for tickets purchased by August 31, 2020. Note that “if the new flight is priced higher, the customer may change for no change fee but must pay the fare difference. If the new flight is priced lower, the customer may change without paying a change fee but no residual value will be given.” Oh, United. You never cease to amaze us.

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Award-winning travel writer and economist Paul Rubio is a credit card enthusiast, whose sophisticated use of points and rewards has helped him travel to 132 countries for free. Paul is a Harvard graduate with a master’s degree in public administration and a master’s degree in economics. He also holds a bachelor’s degree from Boston University with a double major in economics and environmental policy and a minor in conservation biology. He attended both undergraduate and graduate schools on full scholarships. Paul worked in the field of wildlife conservation before embracing his writing talents full-time in 2008. Since then, he has won more than two dozen national awards for his exemplary work in travel journalism. The prolific writer contributes to a number of top-tier international, national, and regional publications including Condé Nast Traveler, Florida Design, Fodors.com, Palm Beach Illustrated, and Robb Report.