Southwest Airlines caps bookings through Thanksgiving as holiday season looms

Sep 16, 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.

Southwest Airlines will now cap the number of passengers on its flights through November to boost traveler confidence, following the lead of other carriers even as the industry girds itself for a tough coronavirus pandemic winter.

The Dallas-based discounter has extended its booking caps that allow middle seats to remain open on all of its flights through Nov. 30, Southwest said Wednesday. The move covers the historically busy Thanksgiving travel period, but not Christmas and New Years.

The extended flyer cap, which had been set to run through Oct. 31, comes as Southwest prepares for what will be a rough fall and winter. The airline has cut its schedule in September and October from a summer peak and — despite plans to add three new cities to its map by year-end — is preparing to be at least a quarter smaller in December than it was a year ago.

New! Sign up for TPG’s free new biweekly Aviation newsletter for more airline news!

Air travel in the U.S. remains down around 70% compared to 2019, according to latest data from trade group Airlines for America (A4A). While a solid recovery from the depths of April when travel was down more than 90%, the road ahead is expected to be long with a full return to pre-pandemic levels not expected until at least 2024.

“The worst is clearly over, but the recovery in demand is clearly stalling,” said Cowen analyst Helane Becker in a report on Sept. 10.

While summer travel recovered faster than analysts at Cowen expected, they do not expect Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screenings to hit one million a day until either the Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays. But even that would be less than half the number of people who flew at the same time a year ago.

Related: Southwest Airlines CEO says expansion part of long-term strategy, not ‘pandemic play’

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

TSA screenings hit a pandemic high of 968,673 people on Sept. 4, the Friday before Labor Day weekend. Screening numbers have since fallen, except for on the odd Sunday, to below 800,000 people a day.

With flyer numbers low — and expected to stay low — Southwest’s decision to extend booking caps in the name of traveler “confidence,” as the carrier put it, appears more marketing ploy than COVID-19 safety measure. Delta Air Lines similarly considers its blocking of middle seats more about making travelers comfortable to fly than protection agains the virus.

For now, Delta is blocking seats through Jan. 6, the longest of any U.S. airline. Alaska Airlines is limiting the number of travelers on its flights through Oct. 31 and JetBlue Airways through at least Oct. 15.

Related: Delta will block seats into January as it tries to boost traveler confidence

American Airlines and United Airlines are notably not blocking seats or capping bookings. Both say that other measures, from enhanced cleaning procedures to mandating all travelers wear masks, keep flyers safe from COVID-19.

Southwest is doing everything in its power to break even by year end. The airline has slashed expenses and enough staff have taken voluntary leaves or departure packages to avoid furloughs this fall.

In addition, Southwest is adding Miami (MIA), Palm Springs (PSP) and Steamboat Springs, Colorado (HDN) to its map in what CEO Gary Kelly said will generate much needed cash during the downturn.

Related: US airlines ‘fighting for survival’ with no hope of V-shaped recovery

Featured image by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

The All-New United Quest℠ Card

WELCOME OFFER: Up to 100,000 bonus miles

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,040

CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 3X miles on United® purchases

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 80K bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, an additional 20K bonus miles after you spend $10,000 in the first 6 months
  • $250 Annual Fee
  • Earn 3X miles on United® purchases, 2X miles at restaurants, on select streaming services & all other travel, 1X on all other purchases
  • Earn 3X miles on United Airlines purchases
  • Earn 2X miles at restaurants and on select streaming services
  • Earn 2X miles on all other travel
  • Earn 1X mile on all other purchases
  • Each year, receive a $125 credit on United® purchases and two 5k-mile anniversary award flight credits. Terms apply.
Regular APR
16.49% to 23.49% Variable
Annual Fee
$250
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent, Good

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.