Southwest Airlines begins capping flight bookings to keep middle seats open

May 1, 2020

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Southwest Airlines is moving forward with plans to artificially cap the number of seats it sells on its flights in an effort to promote social distancing onboard during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Dallas-based carrier is capping bookings at around 79 passengers on its Boeing 737-700s and around 102 passengers on its 737-800s depending on the route and day-of-week, according to an employee who saw internal documents. The limits represent an at least 42% reduction in the number of seats on both the -700s and -800s, which are configured for 142 and 175 passengers, respectively.

Southwest’s capacity caps are in place from May 2 through the end of June.

A Southwest spokesperson declined to confirm the limits, saying the airline is not discussing the numbers externally.

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The airline’s booking caps are part of a larger effort, dubbed the “Southwest Promise,” to minimize the risk of exposure to COVID-19. Other aspects include plexiglass shields at many airport ticket and gate counters to protect ground staff, and has modified its boarding process to groups of 10 people at a time.

“We will approach [the coronavirus] as we have many other challenges throughout our nearly five decades… with a determination to provide our customers with the utmost care and assistance,” said Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said in a message on the safety changes on Friday.

Southwest maintains its long-standing open seating policy, even as it caps bookings that allow all middle seats to remain open. In other words, families traveling together can still take a whole row.

Related: Southwest Airlines considers selling fewer seats to allow for social distancing

Airlines are grappling with how to keep passengers and crews safe from COVID-19, even in the confined space of an aircraft cabin. Carriers have implemented more robust cleaning regimes for planes and most are now mandating that all passengers wear a mask when onboard.

Despite these moves, a recent survey by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) found that at least 40% of would-be travelers plan to stay off planes for at least six months after restrictions on movement are lifted amid fears of the virus.

Alaska Airlines and Delta Air Lines are also not selling some seats on their flights. Both carriers have are selling just half of their available first class seats, and are capping sales in other cabins at as much as 60% of available seats.

Improved safety alone, however, is not expected to get people flying again. Life must return to a semblance of normal before airline executives expect the recovery to begin in earnest.

Related: US airlines are requiring passengers wear masks on flights

“I think a lot of things are going to have to happen for the country to come back to life, much less air travel,” Kelly told CNBC on April 28. “[People] need to have something to be able to do when they get there. So Disney World needs to open back up. Restaurants need to open back up.”

Southwest has slashed its schedule by 60% to 70% from previously published schedules in May and by roughly 50% in June. In addition, it may cancel up to another 10% of its schedule on short notice through June.

“Hopefully by July, August, we’re beginning to see some improvement [in demand] that would encourage us,” said Kelly during Southwest’s first quarter earnings call on April 28. “[But] we’ve got to be prepared for just about any negative scenario.”

Related: Southwest is betting it won’t need 140 737 jets for a while

Featured image courtesy of Denver International Airport.

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