Delta to Keep Blocking Middle Seats Amid ‘Surging Virus’

Delta Air Lines Inc. will keep blocking middle seats through the first quarter of next year, outlasting other U.S. carriers because it wants to reassure customers about the safety of aircraft cabins.

While Delta considers it “safe to sit in the middle seat” despite the coronavirus pandemic, the company wants to assuage any potential passenger anxiety, Chief Executive Officer Ed Bastian said Wednesday. Delta will hold middle seats open through March 30 instead of Jan. 6, as previously planned.

“The reason we’re keeping them open is about consumer confidence,” Bastian said in a video conversation with Aviation Week and the Wings Club of New York. “In the face of surging virus, this is not the time to fill the empty seat.”

Delta’s pledge bucks an industry trend as airlines seek to boost ticket sales and insist that studies show a low risk of transmission in jetliner cabins. Carriers began blocking some seats early on in the pandemic as a way to provide a measure of social distancing. Airlines have also required face masks.

“It’s expensive, there’s no question about it,” Bastian said about limiting onboard capacity. “We’re in a good position that we can afford to do that.”

JetBlue Airways Corp. will make all seats available for sale starting Jan. 8. The company’s decision last week followed an announcement by Southwest Airlines Co. that it will sell the entire cabin after November. Alaska Air Group Inc. plans to bar some seats from sale at least through Jan. 6. American Airlines Group Inc. resumed selling all seats on July 1, and United Airlines Holdings Inc. never blocked seats.

Domestic passenger totals continue to hover at around 35% of last year’s levels as the pandemic worsens in the U.S. and some states toughen quarantine rules.

Vaccines likely won’t boost travel near term, but recent positive news “provides a real clear light at the end of this dark tunnel,” Bastian said. He reiterated that he expects that a full travel recovery will take two to three years, with “a pretty aggressive ramp starting next summer to get there.”

CEO Testing

Bastian said he gets tested for coronavirus three times a week and requires the same of people who work most closely with him. Delta, which has been testing its employees since June, offers a 15-minute rapid option at its headquarters, he said.

Preflight virus testing won’t work in the U.S. because of the sheer volume of daily travelers, Bastian said. But it will help open international markets by allowing passengers to avoid lengthy quarantines imposed by some countries.

American and British Airways will begin offering tests to some flyers between London and three U.S. cities starting Nov. 25 in a pilot program. United has begun a four-week offer of predeparture tests to all passengers between Newark, New Jersey, and London’s Heathrow airport.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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