What You Need to Know About the Middle Seat Question

There’s a lot of chatter these days about the dreaded “middle seat” on flights. The middle seat pre-pandemic already had a terrible rep.

travelers social distancing on an airplane

You didn’t want to get stuck sitting in one, and economy passengers who avoided being seated next to someone in that seat always felt a little luckier on any given flight.

And then Covid-19 hit. The airlines had to react pretty quickly to address social distancing in the air, and with a lot less people flying, “blocking” the middle seats became the norm.

And now with travel slowly coming back, and the data suggesting that air travel is quite safe, as well as the holidays being just around the corner, it was perhaps inevitable that the airlines would have to rethink blocking their middle seats. And so they have.

This week Southwest announced that they would be booking the middle seats starting on December 1, just in time for the holidays. They pointed to a compelling International Air Transport Association report that said just 44 people contracted Covid-19 in the air out of almost 1.2 billion people who traveled this year.

Of course, some of the other airlines immediately took issue with this policy change. Delta came out strongly against booking the middle seat “at least until January 6.” And since a vaccine is unlikely to be widely available by January 6, Delta does seem to be leaving the door wide open for its own return to the middle seat game.

The rest of the airlines have middle seat policies that are a bit of a mixed bag. First – the seat blockers. JetBlue will sell less than 70% of seats on any flight through the holidays, and will continue to block middle seats into 2021. Alaska Airlines pledged to block middle seats (except when large families need them) and will also limit the numbers of passengers on board through January 6. Hawaiian Airlines will block center seats through December 15.

These airlines are not currently blocking all middle seats. American Airlines currently does not have a policy blocking the middle seats but does encourage social distancing at the gate area and while boarding. And United does try to alert passengers 24 hours in advance when a flight is going to be running close to capacity, so a traveler can make other arrangements if this isn’t acceptable (change fee waived, of course).

The question that remains on a lot of travelers’ minds is whether it is safe to resume sitting so close together. We think the science and the public health policies indicates it is – especially for those not in a high-risk group. Airplane cabin air is quite safe and coupled with the mandatory on-board mask mandates virtually all airlines have instituted, it seems not unreasonable that the airlines would move to return to regular seating. It’s also worth noting that if truly keeping 6 feet apart was the aim – distancing should have also been implemented for the seats in front of and behind each row. If you book with CheapAir.com, you can do a deep dive in our flight search – so you can see exactly what kind of seat you’re buying on any particular flight – including seat pitch and width.

No doubt the middle seat wars will continue to rage as long as the pandemic continues. But the data doesn’t lie. Due to the airlines’ quick response to the Covid threat, flying remains one of the safest ways to travel.

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