Airlines Block Seats: Last-Minute Profit Strategy

why are airlines blocking seats day before travel

Airlines block seats for a variety of reasons. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some airlines blocked middle seats to reduce the risk of passengers catching and spreading the virus. However, not all airlines implemented this policy, and some have since updated their policies to allow full capacity. Other reasons for blocking seats include priority passengers, operational requirements, reserving accessible seats for disabled passengers, and ensuring even weight distribution throughout the aircraft.

Characteristics Values
Reason To reduce the risk of catching and spreading COVID-19
Who American, Delta and Southwest
Time Period During the COVID-19 pandemic
Alternative Some airlines chose to sell all seats
Other Measures Requiring masks, notifying passengers when flights are full


To reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission by social distancing

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the airline industry, with airlines implementing various measures to reduce the risk of transmission and ensure the safety of their passengers and crew. One notable measure has been the blocking of seats, particularly middle seats, to facilitate social distancing on board.

Social distancing is a critical strategy in the fight against COVID-19, as it helps to reduce the likelihood of close contact and droplet transmission between individuals. By blocking off certain seats, airlines can create more space between passengers, lowering the risk of respiratory droplet transmission. This practice is supported by scientific research, which indicates that leaving middle seats empty can significantly reduce the probability of contracting COVID-19 from a nearby passenger. According to a working paper from MIT, the probability of infection on a flight of average duration drops from 1 in 4,300 when middle seats are occupied to 1 in 7,700 when they are left vacant, assuming universal mask usage and full flight capacity.

Airlines such as Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, and JetBlue have implemented seat-blocking policies to prioritize the health and safety of their passengers. For example, Delta Air Lines initially committed to blocking middle seats until at least March 30, 2021, with some adjustments made for parties of three or more. Similarly, Southwest Airlines blocked middle seats until December 1, 2020, notifying customers in advance if their flight was expected to be full. JetBlue, on the other hand, opted to keep flights under 70% full through December 1, 2020, without guaranteeing that the blocked seats would always be middle seats.

While some airlines have since updated their policies and resumed selling all available seats, the initial decision to block seats was a strategic move to rebuild consumer confidence in air travel. By prioritizing passenger safety and well-being, airlines could reassure customers that flying was a lower-risk activity. This long-term strategy aimed to accelerate the recovery of the airline industry by encouraging more people to fly without concerns about COVID-19 transmission.


To improve customer confidence in flying and reduce anxiety

Airlines blocking seats the day before travel is a strategy to improve customer confidence in flying and reduce anxiety. This strategy is particularly relevant in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, where airlines are implementing measures to reduce the risk of infection for passengers.

After the pandemic began, some of the biggest carriers in the US, such as American, Delta, and Southwest, initially agreed to leave middle seats empty to allow for social distancing. This practice was supported by a working paper from MIT, which found that leaving middle seats empty reduced the probability of getting COVID-19 from a nearby passenger on a flight of average duration from 1 in 4,300 to 1 in 7,700, assuming everyone was wearing a mask.

By blocking seats, airlines are sending a message to customers that they are taking measures to create a safer flying environment. This can help to build trust and encourage more people to fly, particularly those who are still anxious about the risks of air travel during a pandemic.

Additionally, blocking seats can provide passengers with a sense of comfort and personal space, reducing anxiety and improving the overall flying experience. It can also help to ensure that there are seats available for passengers who need to be seated together, such as families or groups travelling together.

While blocking seats may result in some lost revenue for airlines in the short term, it can be a strategic long-term decision. By prioritising customer confidence and safety, airlines can encourage a faster recovery of total demand for air travel. This means that, over time, they can fill more seats and increase their revenue.

In summary, blocking seats the day before travel is a strategy employed by airlines to improve customer confidence and reduce anxiety, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. This approach can have a positive impact on the overall flying experience and may lead to increased demand for air travel in the long run.


To ensure even weight distribution throughout the aircraft

Ensuring even weight distribution is crucial for the safety and operation of an aircraft. Every person, bag, and piece of cargo affects the plane's balance. If the weight is too heavily or lightly loaded toward either the nose or the tail, the plane can become unstable and difficult to control.

To ensure even weight distribution, airlines may ask passengers to move seats before takeoff or landing. This is more common on smaller aircraft, but larger aircraft must also manage cargo loads accurately to maintain operational stability. In some cases, the ground staff may block seats to achieve a decent trim (balance). For example, on smaller commuter aircraft with one door for boarding, all passengers will want to sit near the door to be first off the plane. In this case, the ground staff may pre-seat the passengers evenly along the cabin and block other seats to ensure a decent balance is met.

Airlines will also balance the weight around the center of gravity when loading cargo. However, they cannot control where passengers choose to sit in the cabin, and too many passengers at the front or rear of the plane can cause an unwelcome imbalance. In this situation, some passengers may be asked to move seats before takeoff or landing.

During the pandemic, when many aircraft flew with much lower load factors than usual, it was more challenging for airlines to balance load factors. With fewer passengers on board, it was more likely that those passengers would be unevenly distributed, causing an imbalance.


To accommodate disabled passengers and those with medical conditions

Airlines are required to provide certain seating accommodations to passengers with disabilities who self-identify as needing to sit in a specific seat. This is outlined in the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) and its implementing regulation, 14 CFR Part 382. The Airline Passengers with Disabilities Bill of Rights further assists passengers with disabilities in understanding their rights.

Passengers with disabilities who require the use of an aisle chair to board the aircraft and cannot transfer over a fixed aisle armrest are entitled to a movable aisle armrest. Additionally, if a passenger is travelling with a service animal, they are entitled to a bulkhead seat or another seat that can best accommodate their needs.

Passengers with fused or immobilized legs are entitled to greater leg room, including an aisle seat or a bulkhead seat. Airlines are also required to provide an adjoining seat for companions who are assisting the passenger during the flight. This includes personal care attendants, readers for visually impaired passengers, interpreters for deaf or hard-of-hearing passengers, and safety assistants for passengers who may need assistance during an evacuation.

Even if the above conditions do not apply, airlines are still obligated to provide a seat assignment that best accommodates the passenger's disability. This may include one of the seating accommodations mentioned. However, if the passenger does not meet the airline's seating assignment criteria, such as checking in on time, the airline must provide the accommodation to the extent practicable.

Passengers with disabilities are encouraged to contact the airline in advance when making their reservation to learn about the specific seating accommodation arrangements. By doing so, they can ensure that their needs are met and request to board the aircraft early if necessary.

It is important to note that airlines are not required to upgrade passengers to a higher class of service or provide more than one seat per ticket purchased to accommodate disabilities. However, if a passenger needs an extra seat, they have the option to purchase one.


To allow for operational requirements and staff rest

Airlines may block seats to allow for operational requirements and staff rest. This is a common practice, especially on longer flights, to ensure the safety and comfort of both passengers and crew.

For instance, Singapore Airlines blocks seats in the Business Class cabin for crew rest on select long-haul flights. These seats are never made available to customers and are essential for crew rest, ensuring the well-being of the staff.

Additionally, some airlines may block seats to accommodate passengers with disabilities or those requiring extra legroom. This practice ensures that passengers with special needs have access to appropriate seating arrangements.

In some cases, seats may be blocked for priority passengers, such as those with elite status in the airline's frequent flyer program. This practice allows the airline to offer exclusive benefits to loyal customers.

Furthermore, seats may be blocked for operational requirements, such as evenly distributing passenger weight throughout the aircraft. This is particularly relevant when the flight is not expected to be full, and it helps to optimize the balance and safety of the plane.

By blocking seats for operational requirements and staff rest, airlines prioritize the comfort, safety, and well-being of both passengers and crew. These blocked seats ensure that staff have adequate rest areas, and passengers with special needs or elite status have access to suitable seating arrangements.

Frequently asked questions

Airlines are blocking seats to help keep people at a distance, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Blocking seats can help to reduce the risk of getting and spreading COVID-19. It can also make passengers feel safer and more confident about flying.

Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines, and more are blocking or have blocked seats in the past.

In addition to blocking seats, airlines are requiring passengers to wear masks on board and providing hand sanitiser and wipes. Some airlines are also notifying passengers when their flights are getting full to give them the option to switch to a less crowded flight.

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