United will block most economy middle seats on its first flight back to China

In late June, United Airlines announced that it would resume service to China on July 8th. On that day, UA857 will depart San Francisco International Airport (SFO) at 11:00 for Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG), with a stopover at South Korea’s Incheon Airport (ICN).

Seats for UA857 on July 8th are sold out across all classes. But a look at United’s seat map for the flight shows the airline isn’t filling the flight to capacity. Instead, they are implementing social distancing policies that will leave most middle seats in economy empty.

I’ve been following this flight for a while, and United’s approach to social distancing is interesting. The airline is flying a 777-300ER on this route that offers the following cabins:

  • Polaris Business
  • Premium Plus
  • Economy Plus
  • Economy

To provide enough empty seats for some social distancing, United decreased the number of seats available across Premium Plus, Economy Plus and Economy by about a third; only about 200 out of the total 290 seats in economy cabins could be booked.

Seat maps from several days ago showed that the Economy cabin was relatively full, with many passengers seated next to each other, while Premium Plus and Economy Plus cabins had many empty seats. At this time the flight was already sold out and no more bookings were possible.

Then yesterday, United rearranged its economy cabins. Some passengers were moved out of Economy to Economy Plus seats, which added space between seats in the Economy cabin. The result is the seat map you see below.

Screen Shot 2020-07-06 at 10.11.22 AM
UA857 seat map on July 8, 2020

United’s Economy cabin, which spans rows 36 to 58, has a 3 – 4 – 3 configuration. Most rows in the center section have two empty seats. Left and right sections mostly have vacant middle seats, with a few exceptions that are likely families traveling together.

Economy Plus, also has a 3 – 4 – 3 configuration and spans rows 30 to 35. In this section, most middle seats on the left and right side of the aircraft are open, but the middle section is nearly completely booked. It does look like United’s spacing in the center aisle of Economy Plus is purposeful, so these seats may be filled with families of four traveling together.

The Premium Plus cabin looks similar to how it was a few days ago; most of that cabin is empty.

United’s approach allows it to capture some revenue from Premium Plus and Premium Economy sales (of which there were relatively few). Then, after a social distancing re-arrangement is performed, some passengers in Economy get a free upgrade to a Premium Economy seat.

In case you’re wondering, Polaris Business on the flight is booked nearly solid. There are only five empty seats in this cabin and it’s unclear why United would leave these unsold.

United has been criticized for allowing its flights to be booked to 100% capacity. The airline has disputed the efficacy of middle seat blocking; and there are several studies that support this claim. Still, it appears that United is taking a more cautious approach with its return to China. UA857 is sold out for the next two months, with seatmaps showing about a third of seats unoccupied, so it seems like United with stick with this approach for the near-term future.