I flew on 7 US airlines and the best to fly during the pandemic is still abundantly clear. Here's which airline is handling 2021 the best.

  • 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.

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Gallery: 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 (Business Insider)

  • Slide 1 of 49:  Alaska Airlines is a growing mid-tier US carrier that's been on the rise in recent years and expanding on both coasts.  Middle seats are no longer blocked but there's still a big emphasis on social distancing.  Snacks and beverages are also offered to passengers, with the onboard experience largely normal. See more stories on Insider's business page. Read the original article on Business Insider

  • Slide 2 of 49: Alaska Airlines has been steadily expanding across the US in recent years since its acquisition of Virgin America, increasing its presence from coast to coast.

  • Slide 3 of 49: While its main sandbox is the West Coast, the airline now operates transcontinental flights from numerous East Coast cities. It's not as big as the majors in the big four US airlines including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines, but Alaska has been getting its name out there in a big way.

  • Slide 4 of 49: Middle seats on Alaska flights were blocked until January 7, the second-longest seat-blocking tenure of a major US airline behind Delta. Now, flights can be filled nearly to capacity in economy.

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  • Slide 5 of 49: Here's what flying Alaska Airlines is like during the pandemic.

  • Slide 6 of 49: Alaska's primary hub at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was busier than I expected when I arrived for my Friday afternoon flight to Los Angeles. As the airport's top carrier, many of those flyers would be flying Alaska.

  • Slide 7 of 49: The entire Alaska Airlines check-in, however, had been overhauled with new safety features like plexiglass partitions at the counters...

  • Slide 8 of 49: Social distancing placards in queues...

  • Slide 9 of 49: Hand sanitizer stations...

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  • Slide 10 of 49: And wipe stations in between check-in kiosks. It was an impressive start to my trip on the airline.

  • Slide 11 of 49: And before I even got to the airport, I was required to acknowledge a health agreement. Standard for most major US airlines now, I had to affirm that I haven't tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 10 days, hadn't been exposed to the virus in the past 10 days, and hadn't exhibited symptoms in the past three days, in addition to agreeing to the airline's mask policy.

  • Slide 12 of 49: The flight appeared to be largely empty and it was looking good that I'd have a row to myself. Alaska flies near-hourly between Seattle and Los Angeles so there was no shortage of flights available, even during the pandemic.

  • Slide 13 of 49: Read More: I flew from New York to LA and back in a single day just to eat a cheeseburger and gawk at planes – here's why I'd do it again

  • Slide 14 of 49: The same set of social distancing measures that I found at check-in were also at the gate, including more plexiglass partitions, hand sanitizing stations, and floor placards.

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  • Slide 15 of 49: The airport also had its own social distancing agenda, blocking every other seat in the gate area with placards.

  • Slide 16 of 49: But while I had hoped for an empty flight, it turned out that this afternoon flight to Los Angeles was very popular with airline employees and standby passengers. There were at least 25 people looking to jump on board this flight, potentially thwarting my chances of an empty row.

  • Slide 17 of 49: Boarding began around 30 minutes prior to departure with Alaska following its normal boarding procedure. Customers board with their assigned group, listed on their boarding passes.

  • Slide 18 of 49: After pre-boarding, first class boards first followed by Alaska elites and those seated in "premium class." Regular economy passengers in the back of the plane then board followed by those closer to the front. Basic economy flyers, regardless of seat location, board dead last.

  • Slide 19 of 49: More social distancing placards lined the jetway leading up to the aircraft. "Mind your wingspan" is Alaska's slogan of choice for social distancing.

  • Slide 20 of 49: Flight attendants welcomed us as we filed into the Boeing 737 Max but nothing in the way of hand sanitizer or sanitary wipes were offered, as some other airlines are doing.

  • Slide 21 of 49: Walking past first class, however, I noticed each seat was given hand sanitizing wipes, a perk that economy class didn't get.

  • Slide 22 of 49: Source: Alaska Airlines

  • Slide 23 of 49: The plane was spotless, however, as is to be expected since this was a brand-new plane that only began flying for Alaska a few days prior.

  • Slide 24 of 49: Read More: Delta, United, and American are 'fogging' their planes to make them safe for travel amid coronavirus — here's what that means

  • Slide 25 of 49: Source: Alaska Airlines

  • Slide 26 of 49: The cleaning measures truly showed. I had no concerns whatsoever about the cleanliness of the plane.

  • Slide 27 of 49: I chose seat 28F for the two-hour flight to Los Angeles, a window seat on the right side of the plane facing forward.

  • Slide 28 of 49: Everything from the seat area to the tray tables was spotless.

  • Slide 29 of 49: Alaska even had some of its new safety protocols listed in this booklet with a website link where flyers could view the full spread of measures being taken by the airline to keep passengers safe.

  • Slide 30 of 49: This flight would feature an in-flight drink and snack service with nine different hot and cold beverages on offer ranging from Coke to orange juice.

  • Slide 31 of 49: The rest of the plane slowly filled up and Alaska's boarding procedure meant the front filled out before the back. Those boarding last would have to walk through an entire plane full of people if they were seated in the back.

  • Slide 32 of 49: Flight attendants during the boarding process continually reminded passengers that they were "obligated" to wear a face mask.

  • Slide 33 of 49: One flight attendant was also walking around with masks to give to flyers that needed.

  • Slide 34 of 49: Even the safety briefing included a reminder that wearing a mask while flying is now federal law. Passengers were asked to report any offenses to flight attendants.

  • Slide 35 of 49: The flight departed with quite a few middle seats open. Alaska doesn't currently block middle seats in regular economy as of January 7 so having any seats open was pure luck.

  • Slide 36 of 49: Flight attendants also worked to space passengers by moving them into empty rows. The aisle seat in my row, for example, was given to a passenger that was in a crowded row.

  • Slide 37 of 49: Soon enough, we were airborne and bound for Los Angeles.

  • Slide 38 of 49: Flight attendants quickly began the in-flight service, starting with snacks.

  • Slide 39 of 49: The bag included a variety of items from pretzels to flaxseed chips.

  • Slide 40 of 49: Then the drink cart came around and gloved flight attendants distributed full beverage cans accompanied by a cup of ice and hand sanitizing wipes. Printed on the napkin was a message asking flyers to put their masks on between bites and sips.

  • Slide 41 of 49: Once the service was over, I took a walk around the plane and only found a few passengers flouting the mask rule. Compliance, for the most part, was good.

  • Slide 42 of 49: Read More: Airlines have banned more than 2,500 passengers for not wearing masks — here are the carriers that have booted the most

  • Slide 43 of 49: The rest of the flight was spent enjoying the views of the West Coast as we headed towards Los Angeles.

  • Slide 44 of 49: Alaska, overall, has largely returned to normal when it comes to things like boarding and the in-flight service. I was surprised to see how much was on offer compared to other airlines.

  • Slide 45 of 49: I was also impressed by the airline's investment in social distancing measures at its Seattle hub, with everything from hand sanitizing stations to floor placards.

  • Slide 46 of 49: And even though it meant I didn't get the row to myself, I appreciated flight attendants being proactive in moving people around to distance flyers when possible.

  • Slide 47 of 49: The routine flight down the coast was largely uneventful and soon enough, it was time to land in Los Angeles.

  • Slide 48 of 49: After we landed, flight attendants reminded passengers to social distance when deplaning.

  • Slide 49 of 49: But most passengers just wanted off and didn't mind crowding the aisle, as is normal when flying regardless of whether there's an ongoing pandemic.

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

  • Alaska Airlines is a growing mid-tier US carrier that’s been on the rise in recent years and expanding on both coasts.
  • Middle seats are no longer blocked but there’s still a big emphasis on social distancing.
  • Snacks and beverages are also offered to passengers, with the onboard experience largely normal.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Alaska Airlines has been steadily expanding across the US in recent years since its acquisition of Virgin America, increasing its presence from coast to coast.

While its main sandbox is the West Coast, the airline now operates transcontinental flights from numerous East Coast cities. It’s not as big as the majors in the big four US airlines including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines, but Alaska has been getting its name out there in a big way.

Middle seats on Alaska flights were blocked until January 7, the second-longest seat-blocking tenure of a major US airline behind Delta. Now, flights can be filled nearly to capacity in economy.

Here’s what flying Alaska Airlines is like during the pandemic.

Alaska’s primary hub at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was busier than I expected when I arrived for my Friday afternoon flight to Los Angeles. As the airport’s top carrier, many of those flyers would be flying Alaska.

The entire Alaska Airlines check-in, however, had been overhauled with new safety features like plexiglass partitions at the counters…

Social distancing placards in queues…

Hand sanitizer stations…

And wipe stations in between check-in kiosks. It was an impressive start to my trip on the airline.

And before I even got to the airport, I was required to acknowledge a health agreement. Standard for most major US airlines now, I had to affirm that I haven’t tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 10 days, hadn’t been exposed to the virus in the past 10 days, and hadn’t exhibited symptoms in the past three days, in addition to agreeing to the airline’s mask policy.

The flight appeared to be largely empty and it was looking good that I’d have a row to myself. Alaska flies near-hourly between Seattle and Los Angeles so there was no shortage of flights available, even during the pandemic.

I quickly got my ticket from the kiosk and headed to the gate. I hadn’t flown on Alaska since before the pandemic when I flew from New York to LA to get In-n-Out Burger, so I was excited to fly the airline once more.

Read More: I flew from New York to LA and back in a single day just to eat a cheeseburger and gawk at planes – here’s why I’d do it again

The same set of social distancing measures that I found at check-in were also at the gate, including more plexiglass partitions, hand sanitizing stations, and floor placards.

The airport also had its own social distancing agenda, blocking every other seat in the gate area with placards.

But while I had hoped for an empty flight, it turned out that this afternoon flight to Los Angeles was very popular with airline employees and standby passengers. There were at least 25 people looking to jump on board this flight, potentially thwarting my chances of an empty row.

Boarding began around 30 minutes prior to departure with Alaska following its normal boarding procedure. Customers board with their assigned group, listed on their boarding passes.

After pre-boarding, first class boards first followed by Alaska elites and those seated in “premium class.” Regular economy passengers in the back of the plane then board followed by those closer to the front. Basic economy flyers, regardless of seat location, board dead last.

More social distancing placards lined the jetway leading up to the aircraft. “Mind your wingspan” is Alaska’s slogan of choice for social distancing.

Flight attendants welcomed us as we filed into the Boeing 737 Max but nothing in the way of hand sanitizer or sanitary wipes were offered, as some other airlines are doing.

Walking past first class, however, I noticed each seat was given hand sanitizing wipes, a perk that economy class didn’t get.

I later saw on the airline’s website that they were available “on request.”

Source: Alaska Airlines

The plane was spotless, however, as is to be expected since this was a brand-new plane that only began flying for Alaska a few days prior.

Alaska, like most airlines, disinfects aircraft using electrostatic spraying, or “fogging.”

Read More: Delta, United, and American are ‘fogging’ their planes to make them safe for travel amid coronavirus — here’s what that means

Aircraft are also cleaned by crews before each flight, the airline says.

Source: Alaska Airlines

The cleaning measures truly showed. I had no concerns whatsoever about the cleanliness of the plane.

I chose seat 28F for the two-hour flight to Los Angeles, a window seat on the right side of the plane facing forward.

Everything from the seat area to the tray tables was spotless.

Alaska even had some of its new safety protocols listed in this booklet with a website link where flyers could view the full spread of measures being taken by the airline to keep passengers safe.

This flight would feature an in-flight drink and snack service with nine different hot and cold beverages on offer ranging from Coke to orange juice.

The rest of the plane slowly filled up and Alaska’s boarding procedure meant the front filled out before the back. Those boarding last would have to walk through an entire plane full of people if they were seated in the back.

Flight attendants during the boarding process continually reminded passengers that they were “obligated” to wear a face mask.

One flight attendant was also walking around with masks to give to flyers that needed.

Even the safety briefing included a reminder that wearing a mask while flying is now federal law. Passengers were asked to report any offenses to flight attendants.

The flight departed with quite a few middle seats open. Alaska doesn’t currently block middle seats in regular economy as of January 7 so having any seats open was pure luck.

Flight attendants also worked to space passengers by moving them into empty rows. The aisle seat in my row, for example, was given to a passenger that was in a crowded row.

Soon enough, we were airborne and bound for Los Angeles.

Flight attendants quickly began the in-flight service, starting with snacks.

The bag included a variety of items from pretzels to flaxseed chips.

Then the drink cart came around and gloved flight attendants distributed full beverage cans accompanied by a cup of ice and hand sanitizing wipes. Printed on the napkin was a message asking flyers to put their masks on between bites and sips.

Once the service was over, I took a walk around the plane and only found a few passengers flouting the mask rule. Compliance, for the most part, was good.

Alaska also isn’t afraid to ban passengers for not wearing a mask. Almost 450 flyers have been banned as of March 17.

Read More: Airlines have banned more than 2,500 passengers for not wearing masks — here are the carriers that have booted the most

The rest of the flight was spent enjoying the views of the West Coast as we headed towards Los Angeles.

Alaska, overall, has largely returned to normal when it comes to things like boarding and the in-flight service. I was surprised to see how much was on offer compared to other airlines.

I was also impressed by the airline’s investment in social distancing measures at its Seattle hub, with everything from hand sanitizing stations to floor placards.

And even though it meant I didn’t get the row to myself, I appreciated flight attendants being proactive in moving people around to distance flyers when possible.

The routine flight down the coast was largely uneventful and soon enough, it was time to land in Los Angeles.

After we landed, flight attendants reminded passengers to social distance when deplaning.

But most passengers just wanted off and didn’t mind crowding the aisle, as is normal when flying regardless of whether there’s an ongoing pandemic.

Deplaning

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

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

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.

Onboard the aircraft

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

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

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

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

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

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 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 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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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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