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Delta Air unblocks some middle seats early amid travel surge

DETROIT — Delta Air Lines canceled about 100 flights over the weekend because of staff shortages, and it opened up middle seats a month earlier than expected in order to accommodate more travelers.

The airline, which is the largest at Charleston International based on foot traffic, said on April 4 that it flew more than 1 million passengers during the past few days, the highest number since before the coronavirus pandemic began last year.

"We apologize to our customers for the inconvenience, and the majority have been rebooked for the same travel day," Delta said in a written statement.

The Atlanta-based airline took steps to increase passenger capacity, including opening middle seats on Sunday and Monday, in an effort to accommodate passengers.

Last week, the carrier announced that it would stop blocking off middle seats starting in May. The cabin restriction was put in place last April to keep passengers farther apart, a policy that Delta CEO Ed Bastian had repeatedly cited as raising trust in the airline. The seats would be reopened as travel recovers and more people become vaccinated against COVID-19, the it said.

Delta said the middle seats were opened just for Sunday and Monday flights, and its seat-blocking policy has not changed. Where needed, seats could be unblocked in order to get customers to their destinations on the same day.

"Delta teams have been working through various factors, including staffing, large numbers of employee vaccinations and pilots returning to active status," the airline said in the statement. Some employees were having adverse side effects from being vaccinated.

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On Sunday, websites at three Delta hubs showed 33 canceled arriving or departing flights. There were 19 at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, another 11 at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and three more at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport.

Delta said last week that nearly 65 percent of passengers who flew on its planes last year expect to have at least one dose of the new vaccines by May 1. That gave the company the assurance to do away with the seating limits, it said.

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 Airlines never did and American did so only briefly.

Social-distancing is hard if not impossible on an airplane, even with middle seats empty — a point that United CEO Scott Kirby made many times to explain his company's resistance to seat-blocking.

Air travel in the United States is recovering from pandemic lows. 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.

The numbers are rising heading into the crucial summer vacation season. Last summer was a catastrophe for the airlines, contributing to Delta's full-year loss of more than $12 billion. The airlines are eager to boost revenue as quickly as possible, and that means selling more seats.

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