The Era of Middle-Seatlessness Has Sadly Come to an End

Well, we had a nice run

middle seat flights
Travel is going to start looking like this again real soon.
Joel Guay/Shodanphotos

Delta announced today that it will stop blocking middle seats for bookings, effective May 1.

Believe it or not, the airline is actually the last American airline to end that COVID-era measure. Over the winter, when travel numbers were still anemic (relative to years past), American Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest and United all quietly reopened every seat on their flights, in anticipation of both the vaccine’s arrival and a senior citizen-led travel boom.

Delta held out for the spring, though, saying in a statement: “As vaccinations become more widespread, consumer demand and behaviors show us that confidence in travel is on the rise and customers are ready to reclaim their lives.”

It’s completely understandable that airlines have jumped at the chance to fill their aircrafts again. Last year, U.S. airline losses topped $35 billion. They need all the help they can get, and with post-pandemic wanderlust brewing for all demographics, they probably won’t have trouble filling out those seats.

It’s the end of an era, though — an oddly pleasant era, where flying on a plane became a more spacious, luxurious (and yes, OK, anxiety-over-getting-coronavirus-riddled) experience, no matter where you sat. I flew a few times last year, and on each flight I had an entire row to myself. Middle seats were blocked, but so few people were booking in general that it was easy to finagle empty-seat buffers for multiple rows in front and back of you.

In some instances, flight attendants had a somewhat old world, ad hoc approach to enforcing social distancing. They’d just walk up and down the aisles offering people new, better seats on a whim, until every passenger was happy and isolated. That’s all over now.

Still, hygienic measures should persist: expect a mask requirement at least through the end of 2021, and you can rest assured that airlines will continue to employ advanced air filters and run planes through extra cleanings. This reentry needs to go well for them. It’s just too important for it not to.

Meanwhile, in true airline fashion, some carriers are trying to capitalize on our halcyon memories of life with more leg room. Alaska is now offering a middle-seat-less package (only in its premium cabin) where you can pay to not have to sit next to somebody, and JetBlue will let you book the seat next to your own — but no, it’s not coming at a discount.

The airlines are back, indeed.


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