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Airline Social Distancing Rules Continue to Evolve Amid COVID-19

Here’s an update to the different strategies carriers are adopting to accommodate social distancing guidelines

May 5, 2020

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines around the world are faced with a conundrum – how to minimize the potential for spreading coronavirus by limiting contact among customers and employees. As a result, different carriers are adopting various strategies to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

Here is a roundup of what some carriers are doing to practice social distancing both onboard and on the ground.


The International Air Transport Association has issued a set of recommendations for what the trade group calls “a layered approach to biosecurity to be implemented temporarily when people return to traveling by air.” The measures include mandatory face masks for crew and masks or face coverings for passengers while on board aircraft.

Citing limited evidence that the risk of virus transmission on board aircraft is low even without special measures, IATA says it does not support leaving middle seats empty

In addition to mandatory face masks for crew and face coverings for passengers, other IATA recommendations include:

• Temperature screening of passengers, airport workers and travelers

• Boarding and deplaning processes that reduce contact with other passengers or crew

• Limiting movement within the cabin during flight

• More frequent and deeper cabin cleaning

• Simplified catering procedures that lower crew movement and interaction with passengers.

American Airlines

American CEO Doug Parker in a recent webcast said that the airline was “blocking 50 percent of standard middle class seats onboard.” American’s gate agents can reassign seats to create more seats between travelers. Once boarding is complete, the airline says customers have the flexibility to move to another seat within their cabin, but all this is subject to weights and balances.

Delta Air LInes

Delta is blocking the middle seat on all flights in Main Cabin, Delta Comfort + and Delta Premium Select cabins through June 30.

It is also modifying the boarding process so customers will now be boarded by row, starting from the rear of the aircraft toward the front. Automatic advance Medallion Complimentary Upgrades are also on hold; instead any available upgrades will be processed at the gate.

United Airlines

Last month, United was the first US carrier to require all flight attendants to wear face masks or face coverings.

Now the airline has announced that passengers, too, would be required to wear face coverings as of May 4, and “will provide masks to passengers for free.” Previously, United passengers were only encouraged to “use gloves and masks as needed,” per guidance from the CDC and World Health Organization.

In addition, United says it is implementing new seating policies to “promote social distancing,” which will remain in place at least through May 31. These include:

•Limiting advanced seat selection for adjacent seats in all cabins, including middle seats where available and alternating window and aisle seats when seats are in pairs

•Boarding fewer customers at a time to allow for more distance during the boarding process. The airlines says it will keep existing boarding groups and priority boarding, but meter customer boarding to minimize crowding in gate area and on the jet bridge

•Processing Complimentary Premier Upgrades at the departure gate in priority order

It’s worth noting that the airline is apparently resisting the move to actually cut capacity by blocking certain seats.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest is not abandoning its long-standing open seating policy. Instead, according to Nicole Ashley, Community Manager, employees are encouraging customers to space out at comfortable distances both in the boarding process and onboard. Gate agents are advising passengers to spread out in their boarding groups as well as board in smaller groups to prevent lines in the jetbridge.

“Our open seating policy also supports easier social distancing without seating restrictions during this unprecedented time,” Ashley said in a post on the airline’s website.

Alaska Airlines

Alaska Air has temporarily closed all lounges, except our location at Seattle-Tacoma Airport in the D Concourse.

The airline is implementing seat restrictions to help with social distancing onboard the aircraft, meaning limiting upgrades available. Onboard food and drink service is temporarily limited and used cups will not be refilled, even in first class. Flight attendants may wear gloves and personal masks during service.

On some flights, the airline says it’s removing inflight entertainment tablets except those to Hawaii and Florida to make room for additional trash carts.

Allegiant Air

Allegiant says that “Customers are encouraged not to book the middle seat, unless it’s to ensure families can sit together.”

Frontier Airlines

Frontier has required its flight crews to wear masks since April 13. Now beginning May 8, the airline will require that passengers also wear “face coverings” on all flights, as well as at the ticket counter and gate areas.

The carrier has blocked every other row on its planes to accommodate social distancing and once onboard, customers are allowed to change seats within their respective zones. Frontier also requires passengers to accept a health acknowledgment when checking in via the airline’s website or mobile app.

Hawaiian Airlines

Hawaiian Airlines does not require passengers or crew to wear face masks, except where mandated by local regulations, though they are available upon request.

The airline says it “will soon launch updated seat maps with seat blocks specifically designed to maintain social distancing.” For now reservations and gate agents are manually reassigning seats. Currently, Hawaiian’s flights are empty enough that the airline can easily enforce social distancing, however the carrier may implement additional measures in the future.

It’s important to note that the state of Hawaii is currently implementing a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all arrivals.

JetBlue Airways

JetBlue is the first major US carrier to require that passengers wear masks, effective May 4, including during check-in, boarding, while in flight and deplaning. JetBlue crewmembers have already been utilizing face coverings at work.

The airline is also limiting the number of seats for sale on most flights to provide additional space between individuals who are not traveling together. On board, crewmembers are proactively reviewing seat assignments to help ensure as much personal space as possible. Food and beverage service has also been cut back to minimize touchpoints, with more limited offerings in many fare classes.

Air Canada

To comply with a Canadian government directive, all passengers flying through, to or from Canada are required to wear a non-medical face mask or face covering over their nose and mouth.

In addition Air Canada says it has modified its boarding procedures and is reseating customers to enable social distancing. Where adequate spacing isn’t possible, the airline offers customers the choice of taking a later flight at no additional cost.

Services and amenities have also been adjusted, with some food service suspended or shifted to pre-packaged fare and bar service. Pillows and blankets are no longer available on some flights.


Emirates has introduced social distancing on its flights, with seats pre-allocated so that vacant seats are placed between individual passengers or family groups in observance of social distancing protocols.

Japan Airlines

Japan Airlines has announced social distancing measures on its domestic flights by blocking its middle seats until June 30.

A seat map of its Boeing 737 aircraft posted on the airline’s website shows that the carrier has blocked all middle seats in its economy class cabin from being booked and only eight out of 20 seats in Class J (the airline’s business class product) are available for booking. This means customers will not be able to book seats next to each other.


KLM says that it has “initiated clear social distancing measures at Schiphol and our international airports and – whenever possible – during flights (passenger seating patterns).”


Previously Lufthansa had announced it would be blocking center seats in economy and premium economy cabins. However in an about-face of sorts, the airline says it will require face masks for passengers for use while on board flights beginning Monday, May 4.

The airline is asking passengers to bring their own facial mouth/nose coverings. The mandated use of face masks will be in place until August 31.

Qatar Airways

Qatar Airways is encouraging social distancing where possible, especially on flights with lighter loads. Distancing is also implemented during the check-in process, ensuring passengers are allocated seats far apart from each other.

Additional reporting by Tom Otley