United Airlines will attempt to promote social distancing onboard its flights and at airports, but don’t expect the seat next to you to remain open if your flight is full.
United Airlines: Limiting Seat Selection To Promote Social Distancing
We’ll discuss confusion below, so let’s start with what United actually said. I received a press release yesterday morning announcing three new temporary policies:
- Limiting advanced seat selection for adjacent seats in all cabins, including middle seats where available and alternating window and aisle seats when seats are in pairs
- Boarding fewer customers at a time to allow for more distance during the boarding process. We will maintain existing boarding groups and priority boarding, but meter customer boarding to minimize crowding in gate area and on the jet bridge
- Processing Complimentary Premier Upgrades at the departure gate in priority order
These changes will begin later this month and last through at least May 31st.
United posted a substantially similar message online, with one key difference. Can you spot it?
Beginning late April, we are implementing additional steps to promote social distancing on all United and United Express flights by making some temporary changes to seat assignments and adjustments to our boarding process. We expect to keep these measures in place through May 31 and will continue to evaluate how best to proceed given the fluidity of the current situation. The new changes include:
- Limiting seat selections in all cabins, so customers won’t be able to select seats next to each other or middle seats where available. We’re also alternating window and aisle seats when seats are in pairs.
- Boarding fewer customers at a time to allow for more distance during the boarding process.
- We’ll continue to use our existing boarding groups and priority boarding, but will space out customers to minimize crowding in the gate area and on the jet bridge.
- Processing Complimentary Premier Upgrades in priority order at the gate before departure.
United also provided these seat maps, showing every other seat was empty:
“Advanced” Marketing From United?
My friend Ben at One Mile at a Time interpreted the announcement to mean that United would guarantee open seats onboard and limit first class upgrades to maintain social distancing onboard. I think that is a fair and reasonable reading based upon the public press release and the seat map pictures. Why? One missing word: advanced.
Note that the press released I received said “advanced seat assignments” would be limited and the public press release just said (and still says) “seat assignments” would be limited.
United later told Ben his interpretation was incorrect and that these measures would be subject to capacity constraints. In other words, if the flight is full, middle seats will be used. Upgrades will still be processed even for employee standby travel, meaning premium cabins could still be full as well.
That’s the way I interpreted the announcement from the start, but I did not see the public version until later, only the press release that included the world “advanced”.
Confusion aside, the bottom line is that an open middle seat is not guaranteed when you fly on United. Rather, middle seats will be blocked in an attempt to space people out, but subject to release at the gate.
With loads at 5-10% during this period of depressed demand, this is almost a non-issue, since most flights are going out virtually empty. It is rare that you will see a flight go out with full cabins, even on 12-seat first class cabin on the A319s and A320s. But do note, that open seat is not a guarantee.
Were you confused by the United social distancing announcement? Do you think United intended to deceive customers into thinking they were guaranteed an open seat next to them?