Delta CEO says the airline will stop blocking middle seats in the first half of 2021, even though anxious travelers are loving the extra space

·3 min read
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Delta Air Lines will likely lift its middle seat blocking policy in the first half of 2021, according to CEO Ed Bastian. Thomas Pallini/Business Insider
  • Delta Air Lines will likely end its strategy of blocking middle seats in the first half of 2021, CEO Ed Bastian said during the company's third-quarter earnings call.

  • "Consumer sentiment and confidence in air travel" will determine when the policy is discontinued.  

  • Middle seats are currently blocked until at least January 6, 2021, with Delta blocking seats longer than any airline currently.  

  • Travelers are willing to pay up to 17% more to fly on airlines that block middle seats, according to a recent survey.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Delta Air Lines has vowed to block middle seats on its flights longer than any US airline, but passengers shouldn't expect the perk to last too long into 2021.

During the airline's third-quarter earnings call, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said "consumer sentiment and confidence in air travel" will be the determining factor as to when Delta discontinues the policy and begins filling its planes once again.

Bastian said the airline will end the policy within the first half of 2021. He did not give an exact date or clarify what medical statistics will be examined before the decision is made.

Delta is the only major international airline that is still blocking middle seats as a COVID-19 precaution, and has vowed to keep them blocked at least until January 6, 2021. Three major holidays and some of the busiest travel days of the year fall in that period including the days surrounding Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. 

Rivals United Airlines and American Airlines removed capacity restrictions early in the summer season, offering passengers the ability to change their flights for free if they become too crowded. 

Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines are blocking seats only until November 30. JetBlue Airways will keep middle seats blocked until October 15 and then limit passenger loads at 70% through December 1.

As passenger numbers grow, Delta will inevitably need to offer greater capacity if it wants to return to daily profitability, with breakeven daily revenues expected in spring 2021. September saw Delta lose $18 million per day and with plans to bring that number down to around $10 million in December.

The announcement comes as daily passenger numbers inch closer to one million per day with October 11 seeing 984,234 passengers, the highest since March 16, according to the Transportation Security Administration. The rising passenger numbers are a positive indicator of aviation's recovery, Bastian said, though it's still a fraction of 2019 numbers.

A recent survey found that travelers are willing to pay up to 17% more to fly on airlines that block middle seats. 

An examination of the Delta's finances following the second-quarter earnings results supported this, showing that passengers were willing to pay more to fly on Delta even though fares were higher with the middle seats blocked. The airline's Passenger Revenue per Available Seat Mile – which indicates how much revenue Delta earns from each passenger it flies – was only slightly less than United in the second quarter, despite the large reduction in Delta's capacity compared to United, as reported by Business Insider's David Slotnick.

Delta will ultimately need more available seats, however, if it wants to return to profitability as Americans show their desire to return to the skies. 

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