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Delta to start selling middle seats again for first time in a year

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A passenger wears personal protective equipment on a Delta Airlines flight as a map depicting the spread of COVID-19 is displayed on a monitor after landing at Minneapolis−Saint Paul International Airport, Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Delta Air Lines — the last U.S. airline still blocking bookings of middle seats on its flights — will end that policy in May as air travel recovers and more people become vaccinated against COVID-19.

The decision reverses a policy in place since last April, and which Delta’s CEO had repeatedly cited as raising customer trust in the airline during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

A survey of Delta customers found that nearly 65% expected to have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine by May 1, which gave the airline “the assurance to offer customers the ability to choose any seat on our aircraft,” CEO Ed Bastian said Wednesday.

“During the past year, we transformed our service to ensure their health, safety, convenience and comfort during their travels,” Bastian said in a statement. “Now, with vaccinations becoming more widespread and confidence in travel rising, we’re ready to help customers reclaim their lives.”

Masks will still be required on Delta planes, which will once again offer snacks, beverages and cocktails to passengers in mid-April, the Atlanta-based carrier said. The airline said tickets bought this year and last year before the spread of COVID-19 will be good through 2022. Delta is also giving travelers additional time to use some of the perks garnered through the carrier’s credit card.

CDC still advises against travel, even for vaccinated

Even as airlines step towards more normal operations, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still advising against travel, even for those who have been vaccinated. The CDC’s director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, this week urged American to heed public health guidelines, saying she otherwise feared a possible fourth wave of the pandemic. 

The airline industry was divided over the utility of blocking middle seats to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 on a flight. Airlines including Delta, Southwest, Alaska and JetBlue limited seating for months, while United never did and American did only briefly.

All the airlines mounted an aggressive campaign to reassure travelers about the safety of flights as long as everyone wears a mask — and that’s now a federal requirement. They also funded a Harvard University report that concluded the risk of spreading the virus during a flight is low in part because of strong ventilation systems and high-grade air filters on most planes.

Air travel in the United States is recovering from pandemic lows that has cost them tens of billions of dollars in lost business. More than 1 million travelers have gone through U.S. airports for each of the last 20 days, although March traffic remains down nearly half from the same month in 2019.

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