If you’re traveling by plane for the holidays this year, your top concern should be reducing your risk of catching and spreading the coronavirus.
Of course, the biggest way to reduce your risk is by not flying at all. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put it, travel “increases your chances of getting and spreading” COVID-19. But if you must, you should know what you’re getting into. Science is clear that face masks and social distancing work well at reducing infections, and all U.S. airlines have policies requiring travelers to wear masks on board.
But are airlines still blocking off the middle seats on each plane?
After the pandemic began, three of the nation’s four biggest carriers ― American, Delta and Southwest ― initially agreed to leave the middle seats empty so passengers could sit at a distance. A working paper out of MIT argued this practice makes a difference: Assuming that every seat is sold and every passenger is wearing a mask, professor and aviation expert Arnold Barnett said that the probability of getting COVID-19 from a nearby passenger on a flight of average duration drops from 1 in 4,300 when middle seats are sold to 1 in 7,700 when they are left empty.
Some airlines have since updated their policies, however, and others never stopped selling middle seats at all. Below, see which carriers are currently blocking them off and how other safety measures differ, too.
American Airlines: Not Blocking Middle Seats
American Airlines no longer blocks off the middle seat and allows planes to fly completely full. AA says it will instead alert passengers when their flights are getting full during the check-in process, giving them the chance to switch, free of charge, if their flight is eligible.
Only children under 2 years old are exempt from wearing a face mask, and if you decline to wear one, “you may be denied boarding and future travel on American,” AA’s COVID-19 policy states. Face shields are not an acceptable substitute for a mask, and masks may not have exhaust valves or vents.
For flights under 900 miles, in-flight water, canned drinks and juice are by request only and no snacks, alcohol or food are available in the Main Cabin, though you can bring your own snacks. For flights above 900 miles, complimentary pretzels or cookies and bottled water will be available in the Main Cabin and First Class.
Delta Air Lines: Middle Seats Blocked Until The End Of March
On Wednesday, Delta announced it would continue to block the selection of middle seats through at least March 30, 2021.
If you are a party of one or two people, you cannot buy a middle seat, but if you are a party of three or more, you can buy the middle seat if you wish to sit next to your travel companions.
For planes without middle seats, Delta will block one aisle of seats.
In October, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said in an internal memo that 460 people have been added to Delta’s no-fly list for refusing to follow its mask requirement. Only “children under the age two and young children who cannot maintain a face covering are exempt,” Delta states. If you have a medical condition that doesn’t allow you to wear a mask, you must complete a complete a “Clearance-to-Fly” process prior to departure.
In all U.S. domestic and international flights to Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean and Central America, a snack selection is available but meal pre-select and special meal service is temporarily suspended. The only time you can take off your mask is while eating and drinking, but you are expected to immediately put it back on afterward. You can still bring your own snack and nonalcoholic beverage.
JetBlue: Not Blocking Middle Seats
JetBlue said it will keep flights under 70% full through Dec. 1, 2020. This means some seats will be blocked, but it is not guaranteed that this will include the middle seat next to you. From Dec. 2, 2020, to Jan. 7, 2021, JetBlue will bump capacity to 85% of available seats, then resume selling all available seats on Jan. 8, 2021.
Only children under the age of 2 are exempt from JetBlue’s face covering requirement.
Iced drinks, alcohol and hot beverages have been suspended, but you can still get a free snack and bottled water delivered in a pre-sealed bag in Main Cabin.
Southwest Airlines: Middle Seats Blocked Until Dec. 1
Southwest will stop blocking middle seats after Dec. 1, the airline’s CEO announced. The airline’s blog says Southwest will notify customers two to three days before travel if their flight is booked to a capacity at which middle seats will likely be occupied, and customers will be given the option to change flights at no charge if another is available that is less full.
You must wear a face mask. Bandanas, face shields and neck gaiters do not count, and Southwest has removed noncompliant passengers. Only children under 2 are exempt from the mask policy; medical excuses are not accepted.
In-flight beverage and snack service is possible on some flights over 200 miles, but on all others, snack and beverage services are indefinitely suspended.
United Airlines: Not Blocking Middle Seats
United Airlines makes no commitment to blocking off middle seats, but says it will notify customers when “their flight is fairly full” to give them the option to change it.
You must wear a face covering on the plane and at the airport. If you refuse, you “may be refused travel and banned from flying United at least while the mask requirement is in place,” the airline states.
United says you can bring your own snack, but food is not available in Economy for flights under 2 hours and 20 minutes or in First Class for flights under an hour. For flights between an hour and 2 hours and 20 minutes, passengers in First Class receive an “all-in-one” bag with a wrapped sanitizing wipe, bottled water and two snacks. That option is available for Economy in flights 2 hours and 20 minutes or longer.