What Delta’s big bet on blocking the middle seats to fly means


The grand experiment of locking the middle seat on airplanes has shown what we’ve known all along about air travel: More people care about a cheap fare than about comfort or even safety in the face of a pandemic.

Delta announced Monday that it was extending its block of intermediate seats for one more month, until the end of April. Delta, the latest US airline to block all middle economy class seats, will consider further extensions based on Covid-19 transmission and vaccination rates.

So far, Delta believes it is building goodwill and trust with customers, particularly business travelers, who are not traveling now but will return. Some who have flown during the pandemic have been willing to pay Delta more for more space on board. Most have been price-sensitive leisure travelers willing to sit shoulder to shoulder for cheap fares, on airlines that don’t block the middle seats.

“It’s really about playing long-term and making sure we’re positioning this brand for greater success coming out of the pandemic,” says Bill Lentsch, Delta’s director of customer experience.

The end result for Delta during the pandemic has been greater losses than rival airlines selling all of their seats. Delta was the most profitable US airline in the last six months of 2019. That changed during the pandemic. In the last six months of 2020, Delta had the largest losses, with a net loss of more than $ 6 billion, greater than United and Southwest combined.

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