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VERIFY: Here's how the major airlines are handling COVID restrictions

With the pandemic still top of mind, many are wondering whether it's safe to travel on planes. The Verify team is digging into airline policies.



How do the four biggest airlines differ in their policies regarding the prevention of the spread of coronavirus on board? The Verify team is tackling three pressing questions. 


All four of the major airlines are mandating face coverings on the plane. Two of the four, Delta and Southwest, are leaving the middle seat open to encourage social distancing. Two of the four, United and Delta, are boarding back-to-front, in an effort to limit contact between passengers. 


United Airlines

American Airlines

Delta Airlines

Southwest Airlines

Seth Kaplan, Airline Analyst


The Verify team reached out to the four biggest domestic airlines, to ask about their policies, regarding social distancing and masks. Seth Kaplan, an airline analyst, offered his thoughts on the differing policies. 

Here's what we found:

VERIFY Question One: 

Are airlines requiring customers to wear face coverings on board?

Yes. The Verify team reached out to all four of the major airlines, and were told that the current policy does mandate mask wearing. Here's what the airlines told our team. 

American Airlines:

"A face covering is required while flying on American, except for very young children or anyone with a condition that prevents them from wearing one. You also may be required by local law to wear a face covering in the airport where your trip begins, where it ends or where you connect. Please bring your own face covering to use while traveling. While limited quantities of face coverings may be available at the gate, they will not be available for every customer on every flight. Be sure your face covering is on before you board the plane and wear it during your flight. If you’re not exempt from wearing a face covering and decline to wear one, you may be denied boarding and future travel on American. Your face covering may be removed to eat or drink, but please put it back on when you’re done."

United Airlines:

"Requiring all travelers – including crew members – to wear face coverings and potentially revoking travel privileges for customers who do not follow these requirements. The health experts agree that wearing a mask is one of the most effective measures people can take to protect others from contracting COVID-19, especially in places like an aircraft where social distancing is a challenge."

Southwest Airlines:

"Face coverings are required of both our Employees and Customers and, if anyone forgets to bring theirs, we have a mask for them to wear throughout their journey. Our policy is to deny boarding anyone whose face is not covered and we treat compliance from that point as we do with seatbelts, through announcements and walk-by checks. Our Crews are trained to handle a number of situations when Customers do not comply with their instructions and we don’t discuss those security protocols publicly."

Delta Airlines:

"Delta customers and customer-facing employees are required to wear masks to ensure an extra layer of protection. Customers who choose not to comply with this or other safety requirements risk future flight privileges with Delta, which is in keeping with the face covering enforcement policies Airlines for America recently announced."

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VERIFY Question Two:

Are Airlines Leaving the middle seat open in an effort to encourage social distancing?

It depends on the airline. Two of the four, Delta and Southwest, are leaving the middle seat open to encourage social distancing. These airlines told the Verify team that they plan to leave the middle seat open through the end of September. 

Meanwhile, American Airlines and United Airlines are not taking this precaution. Starting July 1, these two airlines began selling tickets for those middle seats. This decision has sparked criticism from some travelers and lawmakers. 

Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, from Oregon, tweeted a photo of a cramped American Airlines flight, along with criticism of the airline. 

“How many Americans will die,” he wrote. “Bc (sic) you fill middle seats, with your customers shoulder to shoulder, hour after hour. This is incredibly irresponsible. People eat and drink on planes and must take off masks to do so. No way you aren’t facilitating spread of COVID infections.” 

Merkley said that he was planning to introduce a bill to try and ban the sale of tickets for middle seats. American Airlines did not respond directly to this proposal, but told the Verify team that they are “unwavering” in their “commitment to the safety and well-being of our customers.”

United responded to the criticism directly. 

“Blocking middle seats is a public relations strategy,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “Not a safety strategy, because sitting in the aisle seat doesn’t adequately distance you from the person in the window or across the aisle.”

Airline analyst Seth Kaplan told the Verify team that this argument has some weight. 

“No health expert is going to say that a middle seat is true social distancing,” he said. “But if you think 18 inches is better than nothing at all, 100 people on an airplane is better than 150, then that’s one of those judgments we can make for ourselves.”

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Here’s how the four airlines responded to our inquiry about middle seats:

American Airlines:

“Prior to July 1, American had an 85% load factor cap, which blocked the equivalent of 50% of main cabin middle seats. American has resumed booking our flights to capacity starting July 1. We are unwavering in our commitment to the safety and well-being of our customers and team members. We have multiple layers of protection in place for those who fly with us, including required face coverings, enhanced cleaning procedures, and pre-flight COVID-19 symptom checklist - and we’re providing additional flexibility for customers to change their travel plans, as well. We know our customers are placing their trust in us to make every aspect of their journey safe, and we are committed to doing just that.”

United Airlines:

“As of July 1, we are allowing customers to select middle seats and other adjacent seats in advance, if they choose to, so that they can sit next to their travel companion.  Blocking middle seats is a public relations strategy – not a safety strategy, because sitting in the aisle seat doesn’t adequately distance you from the person in the window or across the aisle. As I mentioned in my previous email, United is focused on safety by requiring masks and firmly enforcing the policy.”

Southwest Airlines:

“Middle seats are open through at least September 30 as we cap the number of people seated on every flight we operate. We’re adding tens of thousands of flights to address extra demand while leaning in on that assurance of distancing.”

Delta Airlines:

“We continue to block middle seats: Through Sept. 30, all middle seats will continue to be shown as unavailable or not assignable when selecting seats via the Fly Delta app or online. We’ll also continue to block the selection of some aisle seats in aircraft with 2x2 seating configurations.”

VERIFY: Question Three

Are airlines boarding back-to-front in an effort to limit contact between passengers?

It depends on the airline. United and Delta are boarding back-to-front. American is sticking to the normal boarding process. Southwest, which does not assign seats, is not boarding back-to-front, although boarding has now been limited to 10 people at a time. 

Here’s the statement we received from the four airlines.

American Airlines:

“Boarding from back to front really only works if everyone is present at the start of boarding, and that is generally not the case. We are focused on other ways to protect our team members and customers such as our enhanced aircraft cleaning and requirements that all customers and team members wear face coverings.”

United Airlines:

“Yes, we continue to board flights back to front.”

Southwest Airlines: 

“If you’ve flown Southwest, you would be familiar with our sequential boarding process. We’re currently boarding in groups of 10 (versus our normal groups of 30) and only utilizing ‘half’ of the boarding area, to ensure further that boarding Customers can maintain their spacing.”

Delta Airlines

“We’ve adjusted our boarding process that encourages more space for safer travel by boarding all flights from back-to-front—reducing the instances of customers needing to pass by one another to reach their seats. The new process is limited to 10 customers at a time to minimize your contact with others.”

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