Alaska Airlines blocks middle seats over Christmas as coronavirus losses shrink

Oct 22, 2020

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Alaska Airlines will block seats on flights over Christmas and into the new year, continuing the split between carriers that do and do not view the confidence-boosting measure as needed to spur travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Seattle-based carrier extended its blocking of middle seats on mainline jets — Airbus A320s and A321neos, and Boeing 737s — through Jan. 6, 2021, Alaska said on Thursday. The policy was previously due to end on Nov. 30.

Alaska’s extension comes as competitor Southwest Airlines said it will remove its seating caps on Dec. 1. The move leaves just Alaska, Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways capping the number of passengers on any given flight in the U.S. The policies are widely viewed more as a confidence-boosting measures since social distancing is difficult within the confines of an aircraft.

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Trade group the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has found that wearing masks, coupled with an airplane’s air filtration system, is the best defense against COVID onboard a plane. The group estimates that the chance of catching the virus on a plane is less than the risk of being struck by lightning.

“The social distance onboard an aircraft are ensured by the airflow,” IATA medical advisor Dr. David Powell said on Oct. 8. “That’s the best protection onboard an aircraft.”

Alaska intends to begin unblocking seats early in 2021, said president Ben Minicucci during a quarterly earnings call on Thursday. He cited several studies that show that air filtration and mask wearing on planes reduces the risk of COVID infection to near zero.

The airline will likely lift its seating caps gradually. Middle seats will be filled on shorter flights and those with pre-flight testing requirements first before being sold systemwide, said Minicucci.

Related: Risk of coronavirus on planes less than getting struck by lightning

Selling blocked middle seats is key to Alaska’s return to financial health. The airline lost an average of $4 million a day during the three months ending in September and is unlikely to hit its goal of break even by year-end, Alaska chief financial officer Shane Tackett said on the call.

“At this point, it will require a further recovery of demand and the likely removal of seat blocks to achieve” cash break even, he said.

Alaska plans to fly about 60% of its 2019 schedule in the last three months of 2020. That represents a steady improvement from the roughly 45% in the third quarter when the carrier reported a $431 million net loss.

Related: Which US airlines are blocking middle seats?

The story was updated with additional details from Alaska’s third quarter earnings call.

Featured image by Michael Rosebrock/Shutterstock.




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