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Southwest Airlines won't block middle seats for Christmas flights

Oct. 22, 2020
4 min read
Southwest Airlines won't block middle seats for Christmas flights
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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.

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

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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.

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 image by Getty Images

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

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  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

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  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,300+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and the Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023