Saturday marks the end of a pandemic in the air: no more social distancing on flights.
Delta was the final holdout, ending its practice of blocking the middle seats on Saturday. That’s more than a year after the airline first introduced the practice when the coronavirus cratered the number of air travelers.
Other major US airlines have long since returned to full flights. American and United have been selling all of their seats since last summer. Southwest began doing the same thing in December, and Alaska Airlines and JetBlue followed suit in January.
Delta announced at the end of March that it would make all seats available for flights from May 1st. A key factor, said chief executive Ed Bastian, was that the airline believed that nearly 65% of those who flew Delta in 2019 were likely to have at least one dose of a vaccine by early May.
“While Delta’s decision to lock down middle seats gave many customers a reason to choose Delta over the past year, the unique hospitality of our employees and the experiences they deliver to customers on a daily basis have also increased their confidence in our airline “said Bastian an announcement.
During a call for earnings in mid-April, Bastian said the change would be “a powerful tool for improving our financial performance.”
The change comes because air traffic continues to recover compared to the previous year’s figures. The number of passengers screened by the Transportation Security Administration has exceeded 1 million daily since March 11. At the lowest point on the same route last year, TSA checked fewer than 88,000 passengers in a day.
As they re-packed their planes, airlines drew attention to an industry-funded study published last fall that highlighted the relative safety of flying when precautions like constant masking and disinfection are in place. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in mid-April found that social distancing on airplanes is beneficial. However, industry experts said they didn’t expect airlines to change their policies.
“As vaccinations accelerate and travel interest rises, President Biden is more likely to dip a basketball on live television than the airlines reinstate center seat locks,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights. in an email at that time.