Bucket seats and packed planes will return to US airlines

American airlines (AAL), the world’s largest airline, revealed on Friday that “customers may notice that flights are booked at capacity beginning July 1.” This change occurs even as the number of Covid-19 cases increases in many states.
United (UAL) has been willing to sell as many seats as possible during the pandemic. Both said they would notify passengers when a flight has more than 70% of their seats reserved, and allow them to switch to a less crowded flight. But that won’t necessarily allow passengers with limited flexibility to avoid crowded flights.
The empty seats had been the result of low demand for air travel combined with the airline’s policy designed to encourage people to feel safe when flying. But on Sunday there were 634,000 people passing through TSA checkpoints at U.S. airports, which was 24% of traffic the same day last summer. That is the highest total since the end of March and is seven times as many people as the lowest examined in mid-April.
And with so many planes parked and fewer flights taking off than a year ago, passengers are quickly accumulating a much higher percentage of available seats, about 55% of all seats on planes during the week ending June 21, according to Airlines for America. And that has been going up constantly since April.
Delta (DAL), South west (LUV) and JetBlue (JBLU) everyone has policies to leave the middle seat empty. But how long they will remain with those policies is unclear. JetBlue has committed to empty seats only for the weekend of July 4. Southwest and Delta have said the policy will be in effect until September 30.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian told shareholders at the annual meeting two weeks ago that he could lift that limitation in the fall.

“And as business begins to return, as demand begins to grow, and if people are more confident in their travel experience, we will decide later this year when we begin to relax that cap restriction,” he said. . But last week he clarified to the BBC that it does not necessarily mean that he will start selling all seats on the plane starting in October.

“Whether 60% [of seats being sold] or a slightly higher number, I don’t know, but yes, absolutely “we will maintain some limits on the percentage of seats sold in the place,” he said.

So far, Southwest has not offered similar guarantees on September 30.

The airlines say they are taking other steps to make flying safe, including improved cleanliness, strict policies that require the use of masks and filters that remove very small particles, including viruses and bacteria, from the cabin air.

It is unclear whether airlines will lose reluctant passengers by deciding to sell the center seat, said Philip Baggaley, chief airline credit analyst at Standard & Poor’s.

“Right now, most people don’t want to get on a plane anyway,” he said. “Those who have made the determination that they have to fly, or feel safe flying. I’m not sure how large a group would be deterred by a full plane.”

“But if the recovery on the flight continues, there is an increased risk of scaring a larger number of passengers by selling intermediate seats,” he added.

What it's like to fly across the United States right now

Airlines in other parts of the world have not implemented policies that have left seats empty, said John Grant, an aviation analyst with the OAG tracking service. He said the only broad limit is a rule established by the Chinese authorities that international flights to and from that country cannot sell more than 75% of their seats.

The problem for airlines is that during normal times they need to sell between 60% and 73% of seats just to break even, Grant said, depending on their cost structure. American and European airlines typically have the highest breakeven point.

Last year, U.S. airlines sold a record 85% of domestic seats, helping them one of the most profitable years in history. But it is not expected to return to that level of demand in the coming years.

Grant says that given the width of the seats, leaving the center seat open leaves less than two feet between passengers, which is not enough for those who want to stay six feet away.

“Keeping the seat open might reassure some passengers, but there is no scientific evidence that it increases the chance of infection by a factor of Y% by using the middle seat,” he said. “I think there is less chance of scaring people because you sell the middle seats than if you charge 30% more to keep the seat empty.”

But others say airlines risk chasing away customers who were close to flying.

“People didn’t like intermediate seats before and now they like it even less,” said Stephen Beck, managing partner at cg42, a management consultant who has advised airlines. “While this will allow them to fill a few more flights to capacity, but will it be worth filling the inevitable negative public relations seats? I would question that.”

– CNN’s Gregory Wallace contributed to this report.