Delta Updates Seat Blocking Policy (Again)

At this point a vast majority of airlines around the world have dismissed the concept of consistently blocking seats so that nobody has a neighbor. While that wouldn’t offer “true” social distancing, it would at least offer some amount of personal space.

Some airlines have gone above and beyond, clearly as a way of differentiating themselves. Here in the US, Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest, all block seats.

Delta arguably had the single most generous seat blocking policy of any airline when first introduced, but that ended on September 30, 2020. The airline is still blocking seats, but not quite the same as before. Let’s look at the details of the current policy.

Current Delta seat blocking policy

Delta Air Lines’ current seat blocking policy applies through January 6, 2021, and includes the following restrictions:

  • Delta will block adjacent seats in first class on domestic US flights
  • Delta will block middle seats on all flights in economy, Comfort+ (extra legroom economy), and Premium Select (premium economy)
  • Delta will block “select” aisle seats on regional jets (which have a 2-2 configuration in economy)
  • Delta is increasing the maximum capacity in economy from 60% to 75% (this assumes that a lot of groups are traveling together, which won’t be the case on many flights)
  • When parties of three or more are traveling together in economy, an entire row can be be selected
  • When parties of two or more are traveling in first class, adjacent seats can be selected

Select seats will be blocked on Delta regional jets

This is ultimately still a generous policy, though how has it been scaled back? What has changed is that:

  • Delta One used to be limited to at most 60% of capacity, but for planes with two aisles, there are no more capacity restrictions
  • Regional jets in a 2-2 configuration used to be capped at 50% of capacity at most (as the aisle or window seat were blocked), while now only “select” seats will be blocked

Delta will keep blocking middle seats

Delta’s first class seat blocking policy change

There’s one new change that I find particularly noteworthy. A few weeks ago Delta announced it would stop blocking seats in first class as of October 31, 2020, but it appears that the airline has backtracked on this decision, and has extended the policy through January 6, 2021. I wonder if future bookings for Delta first class decreased significantly, or what.

It did seem a bit backwards that you’d be closer to someone in first class than you’d be in economy with a blocked middle.

Delta will continue to block first class seats

Seat blocking is getting costly for Delta

When the pandemic first started, seat blocking probably wasn’t too costly for Delta to offer, given how few people were flying. However, at this point airlines have drastically reduced capacity while the number of people traveling has increased, meaning that many of the flights still operating are fairly full.

At this point it’s clearly costing Delta quite a bit to offer this benefit. While the airline has long tried to differentiate itself from American and United (which aren’t blocking seats), I’m not sure Delta is getting the short-term payoff it was expecting.

For what it’s worth, Delta’s second quarter financial results were significantly worse than those of American and United, though that goes way beyond seat blocking.

Delta One Suites are no longer being blocked

Where Delta has differed with the industry

The industry on the whole has argued that blocking middle seats isn’t necessary or reasonable:

  • Blocking middle seats long term wouldn’t be possible without raising airfare 50%+, which would have a significant impact on demand
  • Even with blocking seats you’re still not going to have the recommended six feet of distancing
  • The industry instead embraces things like mandatory face masks, deeper cleaning of planes, temperature screenings, boarding and deplaning processes that minimize crowding, etc.

Airlines are trying to make boarding more orderly

Delta is typically the leader among US airlines, so why is Delta willing to forgo revenue in order to block seats, while competitors aren’t doing that? It comes down to one very important point — Delta knows that for the industry to recover, consumers need to perceive flying as being safe.

Delta, unlike most other airlines, also thinks passengers are willing to pay a premium for that. Delta has long managed to get a revenue premium over competitors.

Bottom line

Delta Air Lines will continue blocking seats into early 2021. The airline will continue blocking seats in first class on domestic flights, and will also block middle seats for those not traveling together.

For the airlines that continue to block seats, we are slowly seeing the scope of seat blocking decreased, which isn’t too surprising. Offering blocked seats is becoming costly, and with few business travelers, many of those in the air are leisure travelers who aren’t necessarily willing to pay a premium for more space.

I’ll be curious to see how much longer we see seat blocking.

How much longer do you think Delta will be blocking seats on planes?