Southwest Airlines won't block middle seats for Christmas flights
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.
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“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.
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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.
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“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.
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