United Airlines has all but admitted that blocking the middle seat on flights is mostly "theater" designed to make people feel safer, without any actual benefit. In an interview on CNN, Josh Earnest, who is United's chief communications officer, said that "keeping the seat next to you open is not going to make a material difference."
United has said it will continue to sell middle seats while limiting the overall number of passengers on flights. It has also said it plans to be back to full capacity by the end of July.
Last week, American Airlines announced it would start booking flights to full capacity effective July 1, leaving only Delta and Southwest among the largest domestic carriers to block middle seats. Delta has even made a point of reminding customers frequently that it continues to take extra measures to ensure passenger safety.
Except, now United is saying that blocking middle seats probably doesn't really help.
"It is very very difficult, if not impossible to socially distance onboard an aircraft," said Earnest. "What is going to make a material difference is wearing a mask, and having a high-quality air filter, and thoroughly cleaning the plane before you get on board."
Airlines are facing difficult decisions about how to remain viable and continue to serve customers in an environment where people simply aren't getting on airplanes. Flying planes at half-capacity isn't sustainable for any airline in the long term.
This, however, is the first time an airline (to my knowledge) has simply said social distancing isn't a thing on an airplane so it really doesn't matter how many people we pack on the plane. If that's the case, air travel is in far more serious trouble than we already knew.
According to the Transportation Security Administration, checkpoint visitors are still down 75 percent compared with last year, meaning people are clearly not traveling right now. Those who are traveling face hard choices about how to do so safely in an environment where you spend long durations in close quarters with others.
Here's the thing, and I think it's an important point. Sometimes theater matters.
Is blocking middle seats on an airplane safer than packing people in every row? I have no idea, but I can tell you I'd feel a lot more comfortable getting on a plane if the airline made a point of going beyond the bare minimum of telling me to wear a mask and promising that they clean the plane.
My wife and I went out to dinner together for the first time in months, and the restaurant we ate at had more than half the tables blocked off. This is a place that would normally be packed on a Sunday evening, and it was strange seeing so many empty tables. Were we safer as a result? I don't know for sure, but I do know we felt like we were.
And that's important as businesses try to figure out how to reopen safely--but more important, how to reopen in a way that gives customers a level of comfort.
When you go above and beyond, you build trust with your customers, and trust may go a long way toward earning back travelers who are anxious about getting back on planes. Sometimes going above and beyond is the difference between providing a level of comfort to your customers and those customers simply staying home.
That's true for every business. You earn the loyalty of your customers when you demonstrate that you have their best interests in mind, even over your own. I'm not suggesting that airlines can continue to fly with empty seats forever, but if people don't feel safe getting on a plane, those seats will remain empty and it won't be by choice.