Southwest Airlines won’t block middle seats for Christmas flights

Oct 22, 2020

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

The nation’s largest domestic airline is ending its capacity caps starting Dec. 1. That means holiday travelers won’t find empty middle seats, and could potentially face completely sold out jets.

Southwest Airlines made the announcement Thursday, saying it would end the practice it first began in May. The carrier has an open-seating policy where passengers pick any open seat, but the cap on sales essentially guaranteed an empty middle seat for those who wanted one. Southwest typically flies more domestic passengers than any other U.S. airline.

Southwest’s move to roll back the booking cap comes as air travel picks up ever so slowly. It also comes amid two recent studies that found the chances of catching COVID-19 on a plane is slim as long as passengers are wearing masks.

Want more airline-specific news? Sign up for TPG’s free new biweekly Aviation newsletter!

“The aircraft environment is one of the safest indoor environments anywhere in the world,” Southwest president Tom Nealon said Thursday on the carrier’s quarterly earnings call, addressing the decision to end the policy.

He added the airline wouldn’t have made the change if it wasn’t confident in the science that they are not putting employees or travelers at risk.

Still, Southwest’s decision underscores the challenge airlines have in convincing customers it’s safe to fly even as the pandemic continues to disrupt daily life.

Other U.S. airlines – American and United most notable among them – have been willing to sell flights to capacity during the pandemic, saying empty middle seats are more of a feel-good measure than an effective safety strategy.

More: Which US airlines are blocking middle seats and requiring masks?

Increasingly, more carriers are moving in that direction evidence grows to suggest that universal mask-wearing is more important than empty seats in fighting transmission of the virus.

Alaska and Delta are currently capping sales through Jan. 6, ensuring that at least some empty seats will be available to help holiday travelers space out. But, for Southwest, Nealon says blocking seats was “all about customer comfort and confidence.”

Still, given the carrier’s change to the policy, Southwest will offer refunds to all customers who booked reservations prior to Oct. 23 for travel on Dec. 1 or beyond.

The latest on Southwest: Southwest Airlines expands again, adds three more cities to its route map

“We recognize that some customers may have booked travel with the hope that our middle seat block would be extended beyond November,” Southwest said in a statement.

Customers who keep their bookings for beyond Dec. 1 will be notified “two to three days before travel if their flight is booked to a capacity where middle seats will likely be occupied,” Southwest said. They’ll have an option to change at no additional charge to a different flight – if available – within three days or the originally booked travel.

Alaska and Delta have repeatedly extended their cap on seat sales, including a new update from Alaska on Thursday. But it’s unclear if they’ll do so again as the current Jan. 6 deadline nears. Either way, don’t expect Southwest to reconsider.

“I can’t imagine us reversing course,” Nealon added during the company’s call. “We have talked to our customers. We’re trying to be.. generous — if you want a refund, you get a refund.”

TPG Aviation Reporter Edward Russell contributed to this report. 

Related: Southwest Airlines to add Chicago O’Hare and Houston Bush Intercontinental

Featured photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.


Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs up to two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide including takeout and delivery in the U.S., and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $80 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® after you apply through any Authorized Enrollment Provider. If approved for Global Entry, at no additional charge, you will receive access to TSA PreCheck.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
17.24%-26.24% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Recommended Credit
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.