Airlines Are Back to Filling All Seats — Here Are the In-Flight Safety Guidelines to Look For

·7 min read
Airlines Are Back to Filling All Seats — Here Are the In-Flight Safety Guidelines to Look For
  • No major U.S. airline is currently blocking middle seats for passengers. Delta Airlines was the last airline to enforce social-distancing seating charts back in April.

  • Social distancing in an airplane to vastly reduce COVID-19 risks may be near to impossible, according to research. Sitting next to an empty seat, however, may lower risk in some way.

  • Airlines have other policies in place to keep risks as low as possible, and passengers can take advantage of new change policies to skip packed flights if need be.

Because more individuals are receiving COVID-19 vaccinations every day — just under 140 million currently, over 40% of the U.S. population — airlines have all returned to filling seats on their flights. Delta was the last major U.S. airline to hold middle seats to encourage physical distancing between passengers, but has since made all seats available to customers in late April, long after the likes of American Airlines and United Airlines, according to the Washington Post.

Given that seating isn't automatically blocked any longer by any major U.S. airline, it's understandable that the idea of air travel may feel daunting for those who are still adjusting to reopening measures — or, more importantly, those who have yet to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. It's clear that airports are busiest now than they've been in over a year: Daily figures provided by agents at the Transportation Security Administration suggest that over 1 million Americans have been traveling daily since mid-March of this year.

The good news? While seats have been released, many major airlines have policies and guidelines in place to keep COVID-19 transmission risk as low as possible for those returning to the skies. Many airports and airlines are mandating:

  • Wearing masks in all of its facilities, regardless of vaccination status.

  • Eating and drinking, and any other maskless activity, is kept to a minimum.

  • Temperature checks and other symptom screenings to deter unaware sick passengers.

  • Availability of COVID-19 testing and even vaccination programs for those interested.

Primarily, airlines are relying on the protection that masks provide to stop potentially infectious airborne particles and droplets from spreading among the plane's cabin. Travelers are also encouraged to practice proper hand hygiene on their travels as airline personnel continues to focus on new cleaning procedures to keep seats, trays and bathrooms as cleanly as possible. And since shared air supply is thought to be the primary concern of COVID-19 spread, some airlines have continued to limit or skip in-flight services like snack or meal service to encourage mask-wearing.

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And because many unvaccinated passengers continue to face high-risk COVID-19 symptoms, many airlines are continuing to uphold pandemic-related policies around ticket rebooking flexibility. That's great news for American travelers, regardless of vaccination status, as more people gear up to return to the airport — as many as nine in 10 people will travel in the next 6 months, per new survey data from the U.S. Travel Association.

Below, we're recapping policies in place at major U.S. airlines designed to keep risk low among passengers.

Is it safer to fly next to an empty middle seat?

While airlines are no longer blocking middle seats on their routes, many are offering passengers the chance to buy additional seating around them if they desire (as many as 7 airlines, according to travel experts over at The Points Guy). Is it worth the extra cash or airline miles, however?

Unsurprisingly, the research is split on whether or not having an extra empty seat next to you will truly impact the risk of contracting COVID-19 in an airplane, given that SARS-CoV-2 is still largely new to the scientific community. Federal health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a limited study in April that suggested that physical social distancing among airplane passengers could greatly reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread. The research suggests that in the case of keeping all middle seats free, the risk of SARS-CoV-2 exposure for any single passenger was reduced up to 57% compared to full occupancy. This is largely coupled with enhanced air filtration capabilities that airplanes are equipped with.

But critics of the study highlight the fact that different airplane models' layouts change risk factors significantly, and that it's impossible to keep passengers 6-feet apart while seated on most models (especially domestic aircraft). Some experts place more stress on ensuring that passengers and crew wear well-fitting masks, keeping hands sanitary and avoid other exposures, which can help make flying safer than activities like grocery shopping. Many airlines have prioritized these strategies after researchers at Harvard University released a special aviation report in late 2020.

In any case, keeping safe while flying during the pandemic largely rests on actions you take alone: You can immediately reduce most risk by getting vaccinated, as well as lower risk by wearing well-fitting masks throughout your flight. Buying an extra middle seat likely won't reduce risk entirely as scientists have hinted that it's hard to standardize risk factors — the layout of the airplane you're on, where you're sitting in the cabin, how many other people are traveling with you and how many people need to get up and move around are all factors you can't predict, as examples.

But any passenger can politely request gate agents to potentially reseat them in an empty (or less full) aisle prior to boarding their flight. While airlines aren't actively blocking middle seats, staff and crew have been known to space individuals out when possible; it never hurts to ask kindly to be reseated before boarding begins.

In-flight safety guidelines to look for:

You've guessed that face masks and social distancing are mandated in U.S. airports and that every airline has an in-flight mask mandate as of right now. But what kinds of policies are in place for passengers on flights these days, you might wonder? Here are the most common guidelines in place across many major U.S. airlines (and we'll note specific providers when necessary).

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  1. Contactless check-in and baggage drop are available where possible. Since kiosks were already in use at nearly all airports prior to the pandemic, you can continue to skip face-to-face interactions leading up to the gate.

  2. Waved change fees. Many airlines are waiving change fees on most fares for travel originating in North America, and travelers will only need to pay for a change to their flight if the new flight they've selected is more expensive. Namely, this policy allows you to change to a later flight if you feel that the plane you're about to board is too crowded. Delta, American Airlines, United and Southwest Airlines are among those who have adopted this policy.

  3. Temperature checks. Most airlines are choosing to screen passengers for health status via a questionnaire, whereas others — like Frontier Airlines, for example — are choosing to perform temperature checks at the gate prior to boarding. In some cases, international travel guidelines may require additional symptom screening, like those traveling on Air Canada around North America.

  4. Reduced beverage and food services. Some airlines are slowly reintroducing complimentary snacks, like Delta did back in April, whereas others have service items available upon request or for purchase. For most travelers, though, airline policy dictates that you only briefly remove a mask to drink or eat; afterward, you must mask up once more for the duration of the flight

  5. Sanitary products. Most airlines have adopted a policy similar to the one outlined by American Airlines, which provides disinfecting wipes, face masks, or hand sanitizer to customers "as supplies and operational conditions allow." Others, like Spirit Airlines, have provided these products to travelers for a small fee.

Each airline has additional safety policies you can use to your advantage while traveling this summer and beyond. Read more about their policies below:

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