To socially distance on flights or not? Airlines around the world are asking that exact question as they grapple with how best to protect passengers from COVID-19 and whether social distancing should play a role in those measures – especially the idea of implementing social distancing by blocking the middle seat. Some airlines have downright rejected the idea while others, like United Airlines, have toyed with the suggestion but refused to fully commit to it.
United previously said it would block the middle seat on its planes to encourage social distancing when loads were light but, importantly, the airline never actually guaranteed it would continue to do so when passenger loads went up. Initially, as passenger numbers slumped that wasn’t a problem but with flight schedules slashed across the board, some of the few remaining flights are becoming increasingly full.
This isn’t just a problem for United. There have been several viral passenger videos in the last few days of full flights with a complete lack of social distancing. Passengers have been outraged that they were put on a full flight when airline marketing suggested social distancing would be complied with… if only they had read the small print.
United could simply reverse course and turn its back on social distancing by blocking middle seats but in doing so, the airline would no doubt face a barrage of criticism for changing a policy that competitor Delta Air Lines has embraced.
It could also start guaranteeing to block the middle seat on flights but that would result in even more revenue loss than what the airline is already experiencing as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. Blocking the middle would reduce the maximum load factor to just 62 per cent, whereas the International Air Transport Association (IATA) claims most airlines need a load factor of 77 per cent just to break even.
So, United is putting the decision to socially distance or not in the hands of its passengers. Yesterday, United changed its social distancing policy so that passengers who are booked on a flight which is more than 70 per cent full will be given the option to rebook on a different flight or receive a travel credit. Customers should receive a notification at least 24-hours before their flight that they’ll need to make such a decision.
Here’s how United described the policy:
“For those traveling now and in the near future, we’re implementing additional, temporary changes to promote social distancing in the air and on the ground. Travel demand has decreased dramatically and even though we have reduced our schedule by 90%, the vast majority of our flights (85%) are less than half full.
However, because our schedule is so reduced (we’re only operating a single flight a day in some destinations), there are a small number of flights where our customers are finding planes fuller than they expect.
Starting next week and continuing through June 30, we’ll allow customers on flights that are expected to be closer to full capacity to choose to rebook on a different flight or receive a travel credit.
We’ll do our best to contact them about 24 hours before their departure time so they can decide whether to adjust their plans before they arrive at the airport – and we’ll provide this option at the gate, if more than 70% of customers have checked in.”
In addition, United will continue to ask passengers to board ‘back to front’ and deplane ‘front to back’ to encourage social distancing. Flight attendants and passengers will also be expected to wear face masks or coverings for the foreseeable future and starting today, passengers will be handed individually wrapped hand sanitizer wipes.
Unsurprisingly, the union that represents United’s flight attendants has called the constantly evolving policy “a mess”. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) has called for a coordinated approach led by the federal government – an idea that the feds have so far rejected.
“Can you imagine what it’s like for a Flight Attendant or gate agent trying to enforce this mess?” Nelson asked on Twitter on Monday evening.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.