Pandemic Answer Desk: Why Are Flights to the USVI Full, and Some Seats Blocked?

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Some readers have asked why flights to the territory are so full, and why it looks like the middle seats were blocked out (i.e. unbookable) on the websites when they booked? One family said it had appeared middle seats couldn’t be booked so their family ended up not able to sit all together, but when the got on the flight all of the middles were taken and the flight was full.

What’s up with that? The two airlines that have been complained about so far are American and Spirit.

Source contributor Raven Phillips flew very recently on American Airlines and reported all the seats were full. None of the middle seats were blocked off.

“AA required that everyone wear a face covering in order to board, and I recall all masks staying on during the flight. Mask requirements were a bit loose in the waiting area of the airport though. I was able to select a seat wherever they were available. I saw no notice of them blocking off any seats to maintain social distancing,” Phillips said.

American Airlines will fly from Miami to St. Croix three times daily from Nov. 23 through 25.
American Airlines.

The answer appears to be both airlines had been limiting reservations but are no longer. Reservations made before or around the cusp of when the policy changed may have shown blocked-off seats while seats booked after the policy change filled up the flight.

The Source reached out to American Airlines and Spirit Airlines with calls and emails forwarding these questions, seeking clarification of the travel policies.

Asked specifically “why, when they booked flights, middle seats were blocked off, but when they arrived at the airport, flights were full,” as well as what else they were doing to limit contagion, an unnamed American Airlines representative wrote in an email that “American continues to limit the number of customers on each aircraft. Additionally, American Customer Service agents also may reassign seats to create more space between customers or to accommodate families who need to be seated together. Once boarding is complete – taking in consideration any aircraft weight or balance restrictions – customers can move to another seat within their ticketed cabin subject to availability. As more people get back to traveling and loads are higher, American has deployed new tools to notify customers and allow them to move to more open flights when available, all without incurring any cost.”

The email was signed “ Sincerely, American Airlines.”

Spirit Airlines representative Erik Hofmeyer responded to the same question saying they “do spread out guests on flights when possible in addition to our multi-layered safety enhancements,” which he then listed. They include HEPA filters for the air and various disinfection protocols.

Both airline websites indicate they are requiring masks for crew and passengers and taking several other steps aimed at lowering the risk of infection, but neither currently make any mention of blocking out any seats.

Looking back, on March 24 American Airlines announced epidemic-related restrictions, saying it “will not assign 50 percent of main cabin middle seats or seats near flight attendant jump seats on every flight, and will only use those middle seats when necessary.”

But that restriction expired May 31. Tickets purchased before or around that date for flights in June might have automatically included the restriction online, only to fill up later. On May 27, American Airlines issued a new, more vague advisory. It said “American will continue to limit the number of customers on each aircraft. Additionally, American customer service agents also may reassign seats to create more space between customers or to accommodate families who need to be seated together. Once boarding is complete – taking in consideration any aircraft weight or balance restrictions – customers can move to another seat within their ticketed cabin subject to availability.”

The new notice is vague about how and how much American will “limit the number of customers.”

A cached version of the Spirit Airlines COVID-19 Information Center as it appeared April 12 stated “We’ve changed our seating process to improve social distancing by blocking middle seats on most flights.” But from April 22 onward that language does not appear on versions of the airline’s COVID-19 Information Center Page cached at the online archive site Wayback Machine. Instead, it now reads Spirit “will also continue to support social distancing measures where possible, but please note that some flights may be more full than others.”

A search of flights on the American Airlines website found multiple flights to St. Croix and St. Thomas. While some seats were blocked off, there was no pattern indicating an effort to further social distancing or that middle seats were blocked off. Seats were blocked off to indicate they were already sold.

A search of Spirit Airlines flights to the Virgin Islands did not show seat assignments.

Money appears to be the reason for the change. A number of news reports,in May, like this one in USA Today, quote airline industry executives saying social distancing cannot continue indefinitely because it is too costly. Many cite the same International Air Transport Association economic report that concluded “social distancing would make most airlines financially unviable.”

That report asserted fares would have to increase by 43 to 54 percent for most airlines to break even if planes were less than 62 percent full.