Update: How are the major airlines protecting their passengers from COVID-19?

From requiring masks, to blocking middle seats, to cleaning between flights, not all airlines are taking equal steps to protect passengers

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Grace Brombach
Consumer Watchdog Associate

Author: Grace Brombach

Consumer Watchdog Associate

Started on staff: 2019
B.A., cum laude, College of the Holy Cross

Grace lives in Philadelphia, working on product safety issues and promoting better recall effectiveness. Grace loves skiing, visiting her cabin in Minnesota, and finding new restaurants in the city.

On Sept. 4, the Friday before Labor Day, 968,673 passengers flew on commercial airlines in the United States. While this number pales in comparison to the same day one year ago, when 2,198,828 travelers flew, it was still the busiest day for U.S. air travel since the COVID-19 pandemic began in mid-March. This willingness to fly over Labor Day weekend suggests that we may see an increase in airline travel going forward. And as the pandemic stretches on in the United States, it’s important to know how the largest airlines are (or are not) keeping passengers as safe as possible while in flight. 

In July, we looked into how airlines were enforcing social distancing guidelines. Since then, several have modified their COVID-19 policies, but not all these changes have been for the better. At this point, most airlines are doing the basics -- requiring a face mask, disinfecting planes, etc. -- but not all airlines are upholding the same standards. If you have to fly, you should know which major airlines are taking which preventative measures to keep passengers safe.

Alaska

Masks Required

YES -- Passengers must wear a cloth face mask or covering for the entire flight, including boarding and deplaning. Children under the age of 2 are exempt from this rule. If you refuse or are unable to wear a mask at the gate and during the flight, you are not allowed to fly. 

Cleaning Between Flights

YES -- A cleaning crew uses a high-grade disinfectant to clean the “most critical areas” between each flight. This includes pilot and flight attendant spaces. 

Set Flight Capacity

NO -- Through Oct. 31, 2020, Alaska Airlines is limiting the number of guests on its flights. There was no specific flight capacity listed. 

Blocked Middle Seats

YES -- Through Oct. 31, 2020, Alaska Airlines is blocking seats, but not specifically middle seats.

Allegiant

Masks Required 

YES -- Passengers must wear cloth face masks during all phases of travel, from the ticket area, to the gate, to the flight. Children under the age of 2 and those with disabilities or documented medical conditions are exempt from this rule. Passengers are allowed to remove their face coverings to eat or drink.

Cleaning Between Flights

NO -- Allegiant claims to maintain a “comprehensive cleaning program,” which includes a “regular schedule of standard and deep-clean procedures.” There is no explicit reference to cleanings after each flight.

Set Flight Capacity

NO -- Allegiant has no set flight capacity, but you can request a notification if your flight exceeds 65 percent capacity and reschedule or cancel your flight. 

Blocked Middle Seats

NO --  Passengers are encouraged not to book the middle seat, unless it’s to allow families to sit together. But there is no requirement or guarantee.

American

Masks Required

YES -- Passengers must wear a face covering while flying. Children under the age of 2 are exempt from this rule. If you refuse to wear a mask, you may be denied boarding and/or future travel on American Airlines.

Cleaning Between Flights

YES -- “High-touch” and public areas, such as tray tables, seat belts, armrests, window shades, seatback screens, overhead bin handles and doors are cleaned between every flight. 

Set Flight Capacity

NO -- American Airlines took a step backward in July by reversing its COVID-19 policy, which limited flight capacity to 85 percent. Flights can now be booked to full capacity. 

Blocked Middle Seats

NO -- Also beginning July 1, American Airlines stopped blocking off middle seats on its flights.

Delta

Masks Required

YES -- Passengers are required to wear face masks, from the check-in lobby through the entire flight. Children and others who are “unable to keep a face covering in place” are exempt from this rule. Exceptions are also made during meal service. 

Cleaning Between Flights

YES -- Delta is sanitizing before every flight, using electrostatic sprayers.

Set Flight Capacity

YES -- Delta is capping seating at 50 percent in first class and Delta One cabins with one aisle; 60 percent in main cabin, Delta Comfort+ and Delta Premium Select; and 75 percent in Delta One cabins with two aisles.

Blocked Middle Seats

YES -- All middle seats are blocked and listed as unavailable. When you choose your seat, the place next to you will be blocked automatically. If you’re traveling with three or more, you have the option to book seats together, including middle seats.

Frontier

Masks Required

YES -- Passengers must wear a face covering both their nose and mouth throughout the whole travel process, including at ticket counters, in gate areas, at baggage claim and on all flights. Children under the age of 2 are exempt from this rule.

Cleaning Between Flights

YES -- Planes are cleaned before each flight, with a focus on passenger seating, cabin walls, overhead bins and bathrooms. 

Set Flight Capacity

NO -- There is no mention of a set flight capacity on any Frontier flights. 

Blocked Middle Seats

NO -- Frontier Airlines does not block off middle seats.

Hawaiian

Masks Required

YES -- Passengers are required to wear a face mask or covering that covers their mouth and nose during boarding, deplaning and throughout the flight. Children under the age of 2 are exempt from this rule. Passengers who are unable to wear a face covering because of a medical condition or disability will be required to complete an assessment with a medical professional by phone at the airport. 

Cleaning Between Flights

YES -- Transpacific planes are cleaned and disinfected after every flight. Neighbor island planes are cleaned after every flight into Honolulu and disinfected daily. 

Set Flight Capacity

YES -- Flights are currently limiting capacity to 70 percent. 

Blocked Middle Seats

YES -- All middle seats are blocked off and can’t be purchased.

JetBlue

Masks Required

YES -- Passengers are required to wear face masks during check-in, boarding and during the flight. Children under the age of 2 are exempt from this rule. Face masks with vents or exhalation valves are prohibited. Anyone who refuses to wear a mask will not be allowed to board.  

Cleaning Between Flights

YES -- Only tray tables and bathrooms are disinfected before each flight. 

Set Flight Capacity

NO -- There is no set flight capacity, although JetBlue guarantees that you will not sit next to a stranger. The fullness of your flight will depend on how many passengers on board are flying with people they know, allowing the flight to be more crowded. 

Blocked Middle Seats

YES -- Through at least Oct. 15, 2020, JetBlue is blocking off middle seats on larger planes, as well as aisle seats on smaller aircrafts. Passengers traveling together are still allowed to sit next to one another.

Southwest

Masks Required

YES -- Passengers are required to wear a face covering in the airport and on the plane. Children under the age of 2 are exempt from this rule. If a passenger is unable to or refuses to wear a covering for any reason, even a verifiable medical condition, they cannot fly. 

Cleaning Between Flights

YES -- Southwest uses a disinfectant to clean onboard lavatories and tray tables in between each flight. 

Set Flight Capacity

YES -- Through at least Sept. 30, 2020, Southwest will limit its flight capacity at 65 percent. 

Blocked Middle Seats

YES -- Southwest plans to block middle seats through at least October 2020.

Spirit

Masks Required

YES -- Passengers must wear a face mask from check-in until baggage claim. Children under the age of 2 are exempt from this rule. No one else will be allowed to fly without a mask, including those with medical conditions.

Cleaning Between Flights

NO -- There is no explicit reference to cleanings after each flight.

Set Flight Capacity

NO -- There is no mention of a set flight capacity on any Spirit flights. 

Blocked Middle Seats

NO -- Middle seats are still sold on Spirit Airlines. These seats are not assigned until there is a need, in order to space passengers out as much as possible.

Sun Country

Masks Required

YES -- Passengers are required to wear face coverings that cover the nose and mouth, while in the airport and in-flight. Masks or face coverings cannot have any vents or openings, which disqualifies face shields as an option. If you choose to wear a face shield, you must also wear a mask. 

Cleaning Between Flights

NO -- Sun Country says that it has added cleanings of “high-use areas,” but there is no explicit reference to cleanings between every flight. 

Set Flight Capacity

NO -- There is no mention of a set flight capacity on any Sun Country flights. 

Blocked Middle Seats

NO --  Sun Country Airlines does not block off middle seats.

United

Masks Required

YES -- Passengers are required to wear a face covering both in the airport and on board the plane. Children under the age of 2 are exempt from this rule. 

Cleaning Between Flights

YES -- United uses electrostatic spraying to disinfect the cabin before departure. 

Set Flight Capacity

NO -- There is no mention of a set flight capacity on any United flights.

Blocked Middle Seats

NO -- United Airlines does not block off middle seats.

During the current pandemic, the CDC still recommends avoiding unnecessary travel. The time you spend in the airport and in flight could put your health and the health of those around you at risk. When travel is necessary, it’s important that all passengers look out for one another. The precautions that your fellow passengers choose to take and that individual airlines enforce will impact your COVID-19 risk level just as much as your own preventative measures. 

If you do decide to fly during the coming months, we suggest that you choose airlines that are enforcing the strongest safety measures, and act as your own biggest advocate. If you receive a notification that your flight will be booked to a capacity above your comfort level, you can often request to switch flights for no extra cost. If you notice the person next to you keeps removing their mask and there’s a free row nearby, ask a flight attendant to switch seats. There are always steps you can take to make sure you’re traveling as safely as possible.

Grace Brombach
Consumer Watchdog Associate

Author: Grace Brombach

Consumer Watchdog Associate

Started on staff: 2019
B.A., cum laude, College of the Holy Cross

Grace lives in Philadelphia, working on product safety issues and promoting better recall effectiveness. Grace loves skiing, visiting her cabin in Minnesota, and finding new restaurants in the city.