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Best US airline to fly in 2021 during the pandemic; travel review – Business Insider

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https://www.businessinsider.com/best-airline-to-fly-in-2021-during-pandemic-travel-review-2021-4

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  • Airlines are changing their pandemic-era health and safety as the pandemic enters its second year.
  • Middle seat blocking policies are largely a thing of the past and in-flight amenities are returning.
  • Delta Air Lines is still a pandemic winner due to its middle-seat blocking policy and heightened focus on safety.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Airlines are on the road back to normal and the travel landscape this year is already proving to be a world away from last year, during the pandemic’s peak. 

Air traveler numbers in the US have skyrocketed to over one million passengers per day since March 11, according to the Transportation Security Administration, and more Americans will undoubtedly resume flying once they receive their vaccines now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has given the green light

Flying now, in many ways, is just like it was before the pandemic. Masks are now mandated by federal law but most airlines that blocked middle seats in 2020 have no abandoned the practice while many are restoring amenities like the in-flight snack and drink service.

The summer of vaccinated travel is approaching and those expecting empty flights are going to be disappointed.  Crowded flights are common and not all airlines are taking the same measures to keep flyers safe and healthy.

Read More: Airline workers have lower rates of COVID-19 than the general population — and airline CEOs say it’s proof that flying is safe

On recent trips in the first quarter of 2021, I set out to fly on as many different US airlines as possible to see how each was adapting to the extended duration of the pandemic.  

From ultra-low-cost carriers to the largest airline in the US, here’s how each ranked in the new year.  

7. Frontier Airlines

Blocking middle seats or allowing free flight changes for crowded flights

Flying Frontier Airlines during pandemic

Flying Frontier Airlines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Frontier is not blocking middle seats or allowing free flight changes for crowded flights. Passengers that don’t choose to pay for a seat have one randomly assigned and the airline doesn’t appear to be prioritizing spacing. 

I was assigned a seat in a crowded row, for example, when empty rows were available and many took it upon themselves to move rows.

Customer service agents at the airport may allow a free seat change but that all depends on the flight and the agent. Flight attendants aboard the aircraft also may allow a seat change but some prefer to wait until the aircraft is airborne. 

Boarding

Flying Frontier Airlines during pandemic

Flying Frontier Airlines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Frontier boards aircraft from the back to the front in an effort to ensure flyers in the back don’t have to walk through a crowded plane. Passengers also must submit to a temperature check before stepping on the plane. 

Onboard the aircraft

Flying Frontier Airlines during pandemic

Flying Frontier Airlines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Mask-wearing policies were enforced but many passengers consistently disregarded the rule on a flight I took from Las Vegas to Seattle.

Frontier also does not offer an in-flight snack and beverage service during the pandemic. Bottles of water are available for purchase, however, for $2.99.

Deplaning

Flying Frontier Airlines during pandemic

Flying Frontier Airlines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Flight attendants reminded passengers to keep their distance while deplaning but it was ultimately up to the passengers when they got up. 

Read More: I flew Frontier during the pandemic and found the ultra-low-cost carrier more concerned with temperature checks than actual social distancing

6. American Airlines

Blocking middle seats or allowing free flight changes for crowded flights

Flying on American Airlines during pandemic

Flying on American Airlines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


American does not block any seats onboard its aircraft and instead gives flyers an option to change off a flight if it fills up, depending on availability on other flights. It’s a nice gesture but I’ve found that this is rarely a dependable alternative since crowded flights are becoming more common and there’s no guarantee an emptier flight will remain empty. 

Boarding

Flying on American Airlines during pandemic

Flying on American Airlines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


American still uses its normal boarding procedure where passengers are assigned a group depending on their seat location. The front of the aircraft tends to fill up first, forcing passengers to walk through a crowded aircraft to get to their seats. 

Basic economy passengers, regardless of where they are sitting, board in the very last group.  

Onboard the aircraft

Flying on American Airlines during pandemic

Flying on American Airlines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


American offers a small in-flight service consisting of a bottle of water, sanitary wipe, and snack in a sealed bag. The offering is basic but more than nothing. 

Deplaning

Flying on American Airlines during pandemic

Flying on American Airlines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Flight attendants asked passengers to social distance during deplaning but it went largely unheeded. 

Read More: I flew on the 2 largest US airlines in 2021 and couldn’t believe how much better Delta was handling the pandemic over American

5. Southwest Airlines

Blocking middle seats or allowing free flight changes for crowded flights

Flying on Southwest Airlines during pandemic

Flying on Southwest Airlines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Southwest no longer limits capacity onboard its aircraft and every seat can be sold.  Passengers are also no longer notified of full flights, Travel Weekly reported. 

Boarding

Flying on Southwest Airlines during pandemic

Flying on Southwest Airlines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Southwest has reverted to its normal boarding process where flyers are assigned a boarding group and 30 passengers board at a time. Seats in the front of the plane typically fill up first and flyers head towards empty rows in the back.

Flyers can get in a better boarding group by checking in for their flight exactly 24 hours in advance and then head straight to the back of the plane to avoid other passengers. 

Onboard the aircraft

Flying on Southwest Airlines during pandemic

Flying on Southwest Airlines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Southwest offers a snack and beverage service on flights greater than 250 miles. On offer is ice water, Coke, Diet Coke, and 7Up, in addition to snack bags. 

The low-cost airline was one of the airline airlines to offer this service at the beginning of the pandemic.

Deplaning

Flying on Southwest Airlines during pandemic

Flying on Southwest Airlines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Flight attendants asked passengers to keep their distance while deplaning but the warning went unheeded. 

Read More: I flew Southwest for the first time since it stopped blocking middle seats. The friendly service didn’t make up for inconsistent social-distancing practices.

4. Alaska Airlines 

Blocking middle seats or allowing free flight changes for crowded flights

Flying on Alaska Airlines during pandemic

Flying on Alaska Airlines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Alaska no longer blocks middle seats after abandoning the practice in January and doesn’t proactively offer flight changes for crowded flights. Middle seats are, however, blocked in the airline’s new economy premium class that also includes complimentary alcohol and early boarding. 

Boarding

Flying on Alaska Airlines during pandemic

Flying on Alaska Airlines during the pandemic

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Alaska still uses its normal boarding procedure where passengers are assigned a group depending on their seat location. The front of the aircraft tends to fill up first, forcing passengers to walk through a crowded aircraft to get to their seats. 

Basic economy passengers, regardless of where they are sitting, board in the very last group.  

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Onboard the aircraft

Flying on Alaska Airlines during pandemic

Flying on Alaska Airlines during the pandemic

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Alaska offers an in-flight snack and drink service with a selection of soft drinks in miniature cans accompanied by a snack bag. A sanitary wipe is also included for good measure. 

Deplaning

Flying on Alaska Airlines during pandemic

Flying on Alaska Airlines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Flight attendants asked passengers to keep their distance while deplaning but the warning went unheeded. 

Read More: I flew on Alaska for the first time since it stopped blocking middle seats and it was the closest to normal I’ve seen during the pandemic

3. JetBlue Airways

Blocking middle seats or allowing free flight changes for crowded flights

Flying on JetBlue Airways during pandemic

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


JetBlue no longer blocks middle seats on its aircraft having abandoned the policy in October and doesn’t proactively inform customers of crowded flights. 

Boarding

Flying on JetBlue Airways during pandemic

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


JetBlue abandoned back-to-front in March and now uses its normal boarding procedure where passengers are assigned a group depending on their seat location. The front of the aircraft tends to fill up first, forcing passengers to walk through a crowded aircraft to get to their seats. 

Some JetBlue hubs like New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport have automated boarding gates where flyers don’t have to interact with a gate agent. Airports without the technology, however, operate in the traditional method. 

Onboard the aircraft

Flying on JetBlue Airways during pandemic

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


JetBlue has resumed its in-flight snack and beverage with a choice of soft drinks in a miniature can, accompanied by a snack. Cookies, chips, Cheez-Its, and a granola bar are on offer. 

Hand sanitizer and sanitary wipes are also available on request. 

Deplaning

Flying on JetBlue Airways during pandemic

Flying on JetBlue Airways during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Flight attendants asked passengers to keep their distance while deplaning but the warning went unheeded. 

Read More: I flew on JetBlue for the first time since it began filling planes to capacity and found it’s still doing more than most to keep flyers safe

2. United Airlines

Blocking middle seats or allowing free flight changes for crowded flights

United Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9

Flying on a United Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


United does not block any seats onboard its aircraft and instead gives flyers an option to change off a flight if it fills up, depending on availability on other flights. It’s a nice gesture but I’ve found that this is rarely a dependable alternative since crowded flights are becoming more common and there’s no guarantee an emptier flight will stay empty. 

Boarding

United Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9

Flying on a United Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


United boards aircraft from the back to the front in an effort to ensure flyers in the back don’t have to walk through a crowded plane. First class flyers and elite status holders, however, could board at any time. 

Airports have also been overhauled with new safety features and reminders to social distance can be found in the jetway.

Onboard the aircraft

United Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9

Flying on a United Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Passengers were given a snack bag that included snacks, a napkin, a bottle of water, and sanitizing wipe. Sanitary wipes are also distributed during boarding.

Flight attendants also performed a beverage service with a standard selection of soft drinks.

Deplaning

United Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9

Flying on a United Airlines Boeing 737 Max 9.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Flight attendants asked passengers to keep their distance while deplaning but the warning went unheeded. Some United flights also deplane by rows but it’s increasingly uncommon. 

Read More: I flew on United again during the pandemic and found it to be a leading contender for best US airline to fly in 2021 — here’s why

1. Delta Air Lines

Blocking middle seats or allowing free flight changes for crowded flights

Flying on Delta Air Lines during pandemic

Flying on Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Delta is the last major US airline to keep middle seats and some aisle seats blocked. The policy is slated to end on May 1, however, when Delta will fill planes to capacity

Blocking middle seats is a popular selling feature for those flying for the first time since the pandemic began and Delta kept it going the longest. I could always breathe easier when flying Delta knowing I wouldn’t have a seat neighbor.

The airline has encroached on the policy, however, when needed to rebook passengers from canceled flights. But for the most part, it was a great strategy that made flying on Delta all the better during the pandemic. 

Boarding

Flying on Delta Air Lines during pandemic

Flying on Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Delta boards aircraft from the back to the front in an effort to ensure flyers in the back don’t have to walk through a crowded plane. First class flyers and Delta elite status holders, however, could board at any time. 

Airports have also been overhauled with new safety features and reminders to social distance can be found in the jetway.

Onboard the aircraft

Flying on Delta Air Lines during pandemic

Flying on Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Delta was one of the only airlines offering an in-flight snack and beverage service at the beginning of the pandemic. A sealed plastic bag containing a bottle of water, snack, hand sanitizer packet, napkin, and placard outlining Delta’s safety protocols is distributed to passengers. 

Those in Delta Comfort+ or first class also have the option of complimentary beer or wine, and snack boxes are also available in premium cabins on certain flights, like those between Los Angeles and New York. 

I was surprised that alcohol was on offer but there were no soft drinks to be found. Delta is improving the offering, however, and giving passengers more snack and drink options, including hot meals in first class on certain transcontinental flights.

Deplaning

Flying on Delta Air Lines during pandemic

Flying on Delta Air Lines during the pandemic.

Thomas Pallini/Insider


Flight attendants asked passengers to keep their distance while deplaning but the warning went unheeded.

Read More: I took 3 flights on Delta this year and it’s still my favorite airline to fly during the pandemic, but there are some improvements it should make to keep up with competitors

The Winner

Delta Air Lines Airbus A220

A Delta Air Lines Airbus A220.

Nicolas Economou/Shutterstock.com


Delta is still the clear winner among the airlines I’ve flown in 2021.

The airline’s middle seat blocking policy would be enough to earn the title but the airline has gone above and beyond including completely overhauling airports in its network to its new standards, as I saw in New York, Texas, Utah, and California. The measures that Delta is taking in the in-flight offering department are also a step in the right direction. 

Although Delta is abandoning the seat-blocking policy in May, I’m confident that the airline will maintain a dedication to safety. 

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