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United is boarding economy passengers first and business class last on all flights to promote social distancing

Business Insider logo Business Insider 5/1/2020 tpallini@businessinsider.com (Thomas Pallini)
a large passenger jet sitting on top of a runway: United Airlines planes at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. ASSOCIATED PRESS © ASSOCIATED PRESS United Airlines planes at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. ASSOCIATED PRESS

United Airlines unveiled its plans to implement social distancing in the skies as concerns about the gradual return to normal for aviation have sparked controversy among flyers finding themselves, once again, on full flights.

Starting in early May, United will block off middle seats in economy as well as 50% of paired first class seats to increase distancing between passengers even in its densest cabins. The move ensures no passenger is sitting directly next to someone and benefits those in economy who can have more room to stretch out.

The Chicago-based carrier is also mandating that passengers wear facial coverings on its flights, a policy that's been implemented by the rest of the big three and also low-cost carriers JetBlue Airways and Frontier Airlines, according to Politico. Coverings will be provided for free to passengers who don't bring their own and cabin crew will also be required to don personal protective equipment. 

While the changes will go a long way with uneasy flyers concerned about potential proximity spread on aircraft, the airline's top spenders may not appreciate the elimination of the perks associated with flying in first and business class.

First and business class passengers will now have to wait until the rest of the aircraft is boarded, including economy sections, before they can board, United confirmed to Business Insider in an email. The move to back-to-front boarding is intended to reduce the number of passengers those sitting in the back of the plane encounter on the long journey to the furthest rows.

Pre-boarding procedures will remain for those who require the service and only the highest tiered members of the airline's frequent flyer program.

It's the latest reduction in services for premium cabin flyers that started at the end of March when the airline restricted food and beverage options in the forward cabins, removing all alcoholic beverages besides beer and wine and offering packaged meals. Hot towel service will also be eliminated as part of the new changes. 

The reduction in capacity in United's premium cabins where seats are paired also means less upgrade opportunity for elites on fuller flights. Top-tiered frequent flyers who don't have the budget for first class rely on empty seats in the cabin for upgrades and the reduction of overall seats lessens that opportunity.

So while getting a seat assignment in the back of the plane used to be a worst-case scenario, those passengers now get to board first and get early access and perks like empty overhead bins. 

The walk of shame for economy passengers past first class passengers once on the jet will also be mostly eliminated in a win for airborne equality, according to University of Toronto researchers who link the journey through premium cabins to increased bouts of air rage

The changes are only set to last until May 31 as airlines begin the slow transition back to normal following an unprecedented and drawn-out blow to their industry. 

Read the original article on Business Insider

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