United Airlines Holdings Inc. will begin blocking middle seats in all aircraft cabins, joining an industry move to keep the shoulder-smooshing spot empty for the sake of social distancing in the pandemic era.

The airline will also change its boarding process to give passengers more space as they walk onto a plane, and process all seating upgrades at the airport to better control crowding. The new procedures will apply through May 30, United said Wednesday.

The carrier follows peers in revamping routine practices in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus and reassure customers they can travel safely. Some of United’s Boeing Co. 777-200s have a 2-4-2 seat layout in the premium cabin.

Delta Air Lines Inc. began blocking middle seats in its aircraft cabins, except in first class, earlier this month, with the changes extending through June 30. Delta also now boards passengers by their seat row starting from the aircraft’s rear.

Gate agents at American Airlines Group Inc. may reassign seats to create more space, and flight attendants are letting passengers move to other seats when possible.

The importance of in-flight social distancing is likely to rise in May and June as deeper schedule reductions take effect and the curtailed service puts more passengers onto fewer flights. United and federal regulators have also allowed flight attendants to move from their usual jump-seats into regular seats to promote social distancing.

United and Delta have not limited customer upgrades. But some passengers have opted to keep their original seat in the economy cabin because an empty row affords more space from fellow passengers than the premium cabin, said Maria Walter, a United executive who oversees customer innovations.

“Right now we have a lot of empty seats on board our aircraft so we’re able to move passengers around,” she said.

If social distancing measures persist -- and require airlines to sacrifice their middle seats for spacing -- load factors on short-haul flights would be only 66% or less, Brian Pearce, chief economist at the International Air Transport Association, said Tuesday during the group’s weekly briefing.

The customer load for a flight to break even financially is in the 70th percentile for most carriers, he said. “So clearly that would have a very negative impact on the economics of short-haul flying,” Pearce said.

First « 1 2 » Next