When the pandemic began and passenger numbers dropped to historic lows in 2020, airlines were able to implement social distancing measures onboard without much risk of losing any potential revenue. Fast forward to 2021 and there is only one airline still blocking middle seats throughout the entire main cabin.
Once passenger numbers started to increase, airlines began slowly allowing more seats to be sold on each flight until eventually all seats were up for grabs on most airlines. However, there are still some ways you can secure an empty seat next to you. The easiest way is to fly one of the airlines that are still blocking middle seats in some capacity.
Although Alaska Airlines stopped blocking seats in the regular economy cabin in early January, it is committed to giving its Premium Class passengers more space. Middle seats will remain open in Premium Class through May 31, 2021. However, the fine print states that this is not guaranteed and you may still be seated next to someone not in your party during irregular operations such as an aircraft change or a canceled flight. Guests who are uncomfortable will be able to speak to an agent about alternative options.
Delta continues to lead the way in providing more space for passengers during the height of the pandemic. Delta will be blocking middle seats through at least March 30, 2021. To do this, it is limiting capacity in the main cabin to 75% and only allowing passengers to book middle seats if they are part of a group traveling together.
Delta hasn’t ruled out extending this limit beyond March. As the only airline still blocking middle seats throughout the plane, Delta is surely earning some brownie points with travelers that may only be willing to travel if they are guaranteed the extra space.
Can I Move to an Empty Seat After Boarding?
Yes, of course. While no other airlines are currently blocking middle seats, almost all airlines are proactively assigning passengers to empty seats away from others, when possible. If there are empty seats available after boarding, ask the flight attendant if you can move and it shouldn’t be a problem.
Can I Book an Extra Seat for More Space?
Surprisingly, yes. It’s easier to do on some airlines than others, but if you’re willing to fork over some extra cash, here’s how to purchase an empty seat next to you on the following airlines.
Book a “comfort seat” on Alaska Airlines by calling reservations and purchasing an empty adjacent seat for the lowest fare available at the time of booking. You may want to book your flight online first and then call since it’s stated that the phone ticketing fee will be waived for only the comfort seat. And if you had planned on traveling with a partner who can no longer travel, you can use their unused seat as a comfort seat, but make sure to call and confirm so the seat doesn’t get filled by a standby passenger.
American Airlines only allows you to purchase an empty adjacent seat if you are a “passenger of size” and need the extra space outside of a single seat. You’re also allowed to book an extra seat for a musical instrument, but for safety reasons, it has to be a non-emergency row window seat that is adjacent to your seat. Therefore, unless it is 2 x 2 seating, buying a seat for your guitar doesn’t guarantee the seat on the other side won’t be filled by someone else.
Of course, you could simply “forget” your instrument and take the window seat you booked for it. Just make sure to let the gate agent know not to fill your empty seat with a standby passenger. You must call a reservations agent to book either of these options.
Delta is blocking middle seats through March, but it also allows you to purchase an extra adjacent seat for personal comfort or for fragile instruments. Since you’ll need to choose seat assignments, you are unable to book an extra seat when traveling on a Basic Economy ticket, so make sure you book a Main Cabin Economy fare if you’d like to pursue this option. And its terms state that seats for instruments must be purchased as a full-fare ticket. Just call a reservations agent to confirm if you’ll be able to book an extra seat for your specific flight.
Hawaiian Airlines stopped blocking middle seats in December of 2020, but it may be possible to book an extra empty seat by calling the reservations team and requesting to purchase another seat for comfort. Hawaiian highly recommends booking an extra seat in advance if you are unable to comfortably sit in your seat with the armrests lowered.
JetBlue phased out blocking seats at the end of 2020 and started selling all available seats in early January. However, JetBlue makes it easy to book an extra seat for comfort by allowing you to purchase this option during the online booking process. Simply choose extra adult seats for as many seats as you’d like to block — you can even book the whole row to yourself! When filling out traveler information, there will be a check box you can click indicating that this is an extra seat. It’s as simple as that.
Keep in mind that Blue Basic fares have a charge for seat selection and you’ll have to pay the seat selection fees to guarantee the empty seat will be next to you. JetBlue suggests booking a Blue fare or higher fare class, which doesn’t have these extra fees, but calculate the most economical option for your needs.
In 2020, Southwest was one of the more generous airlines in regards to providing passengers extra space by capping ticket sales on each flight to ensure no one would be forced to sit next to someone outside of their party. The airline ended this policy in December 2020 and is now selling flights to full capacity. Since Southwest doesn’t assign seats in advance, you’ll have to just hope there are some extra empty seats available when your boarding position is called.
Southwest made headlines in 2010 when film director Kevin Smith was booted off a flight for taking up too much space. It now has a policy for customers of size to purchase an extra seat to guarantee space on a specific flight. This can also be refunded if the flight ends up taking off with empty seats.
Like JetBlue, Southwest allows you to book this extra seat online during the booking process, but it technically is only allowed if you are a customer of size, which is for “customers who encroach any part of the neighboring seat(s).” To book, enter the total number of seats you’d like to purchase in the “passenger” field. When filling out passenger details for the extra seats, you’ll need to enter “XS” as the middle name and duplicate your first name and last name for those fields.
Spirit Airlines also lets you easily book an empty seat for extra space online. When purchasing your flight, just make sure to choose extra passengers for as many extra seats you’d like and simply enter your name for all seats want to save. Of course, you’ll need to pay the seat selection fees to guarantee these extra seats are actually next to you.
United stopped blocking middle seats in early 2020, but it does allow customers to purchase an extra seat if you’re “unable to sit safely and comfortably in a single seat.” The extra seat can only be booked over the phone so you’ll need to call reservations for this option.
Can I Change My Flight If It is Full?
Since change fees are currently being waived by most airlines, you’ll likely be able to change your flight without an extra fee. However, a fare difference may apply. Some airlines are being proactive in notifying customers when flights reach a certain capacity to allow them to switch to a different flight for free, if desired.
Allegiant Air gives customers the option to be notified if a booked flight exceeds 65% and will present flexible options for rebooking. In 2020, United stated that it will try to notify customers if a flight will be more than 70% full and present rebooking options, although it is unclear if the airline is still doing this.
It’s also been reported that other airlines such as Southwest and American have been accommodating concerned passengers by allowing you to switch to an emptier flight if the flight you are booked on is too full for your comfort. Due to the current situation, you may be able to do this without paying a fare difference. Of course, this is subject to availability and your particular situation.