Southwest Airlines caps bookings through Thanksgiving as holiday season looms

Sep 16, 2020

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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.

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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.

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