More airlines are temporarily banishing one of the most dreaded aspects of modern air travel: being assigned a middle seat.
To further the goal of social distancing and stem the spread of the coronavirus, some airlines are no longer assigning passengers to the middles in coach.
In good times, leaving a third of the plane's seats unfilled would be considered financial suicide for airlines. But with few people flying and the need to space out those who are, now it's deemed a necessary public-health move.
Delta, Alaska and Spirit are among the air carriers that say they've temporarily abolished booking middle seats.
Other airlines are adopting modified versions of the idea.
American, for instance, is blocking off 50% of its middle seats. "Our team also monitors flights closely to maintain social distancing," said spokesman Ross Feinstein.
And JetBlue says simply that it won't assign passengers to about a third of its seats, noting that seat layouts vary based on aircraft type.
"We are capping our flights whenever possible to allow for a level of social distancing, relaxing our assigned seating policy and proactively assigning seats to maintain distance among customers not traveling together," said JetBlue spokesman Derek Dombrowski.
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And airlines are showing some flexibility. Alaska, with a no-middles policy that runs through May 31, says families or those in groups who want to sit together can make the request.
Middle seats have never held appeal with flyers. They sandwich travelers who typically fly solo for business or pleasure between two strangers. With neither a window to enjoy the view nor ready access to the aisle for lavatory runs, middle-seat flyers stew in misery, especially if their seatmates choose to spread out or hog an armrest.
Then, along came the coronavirus pandemic. In the U.S., public health officials have recommended that people stay six feet from each other to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which is transmitted in large part by coughs, sneezing or breath that releases tiny respiratory droplets. Obviously, that kind of distancing would be a challenge on a jet.
But airlines are doing their best to spread out passengers, helped by the fact planes are flying so empty. Travelers canceled reservations en masse last month as stay-at-home orders were imposed in most states and bans on nonessential travel took hold for much of Europe along with border closures between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Some states also instituted traveler self-quarantine orders to deter interstate travel.
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"As a result, passenger volume is down 97%, equating to a customer level we have not seen since 1954," said Nicholas Calio, CEO of Airlines for America, the industry's major trade group, in a statement earlier this week.
But it doesn't mean planes will always be awash in empty seats. Occasionally, there could be in-demand flights in which nearly all seats are taken. Then what?
Qantas found itself in this position when a passenger tweeted out of a photo of a full flight – nearly all seats occupied, judging from the snapshot – and questioned the Australian airline's dedication to the concept of distancing.
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Qantas flights have been only flying about 30% full, so social distancing has been happening by default, the airline said in a statement.
But after some flights were more full, including the plane on which the photo was taken, Qantas officially
joined the no-middles club and will now leave those seats open.
Not filling middle seats could play further havoc with airlines' finances, according to Alexandre de Juniac, CEO of the International Air Transport Association.
In an interview with him posted Friday on the website of the IATA trade publication, Airlines, de Juniac said any move to require airlines to "de-densify" planes by leaving middle seats open presents "an immensely difficult business challenge" because short-haul airlines generally can't earn a profit unless they are flying at least 80% full.
Airlines are doing a lot more than blocking off middle seats to protect passengers and staff. Several are not allowing people to sit in close proximity to the flight attendants' jump seats, the pull-down perches where they sit facing passengers during takeoffs and landings.
Spirit is going to test clear "sneeze guard" barriers at its airport counters in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
And Delta is only boarding passengers 10 at a time, with the ones at the back of the plane going aboard first so they don't have to pass others as they work their way down the aisle.