Southwest Airlines considers selling fewer seats to allow for social distancing

Apr 28, 2020

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Southwest Airlines is evaluating ways to maintain the health and safety of passengers and staff onboard its planes and at airports, including looking at ways to maintain social distancing in the sky.

One idea that the Dallas-based carrier is considering is purposely not selling all of the seats on any given flight in order to allow people to keep their distance onboard, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said during a quarterly earnings call on Tuesday. Such a move could be coupled with improved cleaning practices and face masks to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“We are thinking that perhaps we won’t take bookings that will fill up an airplane,” he said. “It would be some [number] less than that… That would be a logical way to address social distancing on an airplane.”

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Kelly’s comments come amid concerns of how people will fly as the U.S. economy begins to reopen. While Americans have been encouraged to stay socially distant from others, this is difficult to maintain in an aircraft cabin and especially when a flight is full.

Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Spirit Airlines and United Airlines are blocking at least some middle seats on flights. American is going a step further and will begin offering travelers complimentary masks when they board, while JetBlue Airways is mandating that all passengers where masks on flights.

But these are seen an interim measures, easily accomplished when flights are frequently flying with far fewer than half of seats filled. Delta and Southwest are both looking at longer-term measures to protect passengers and crew and allay any misgivings about the safety of flying.

Related: Delta CEO raises prospect of ‘immunity passports’ for air travel

Delta CEO Ed Bastian mentioned the possibility of “immunity passports” during the carrier’s earnings call on April 22. Such a document would be used to prove a passenger’s health status before a flight.

Southwest too is looking at how to keep people safe and assuage fears. If the airline moved forward with the idea of temporarily keeping some seats open on flights, it would only do so in its reservations system. Kelly said the airline would not make physical changes onboard, such as removing seats or blocking middle seats. The airline’s long-standing open seating policy would remain.

Artificially reducing seating capacity on flights, while necessary for social distancing, could have negative financial implications. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) director general Alexandre de Juniac has warned that if airlines are forced to block middle seats they may have to raise ticket prices or face financial losses on top of those already inflicted by the pandemic.

“Either you fly at the same [ticket] price and lose enormous amounts of money…or you increase the ticket price by 50% and you are able to fly with minimal profit,” he said on April 21. “If social distancing is imposed cheap travel is over. Voila.”

Related: The hidden costs of saying goodbye to the middle seat

Kelly did not comment on what reducing capacity on flights would mean for fares or Southwest’s finances. However, he did emphasize that low costs will be key to weathering the crisis.

On Tuesday, Southwest reported a pre-tax loss of $144 million during the three months ending in March. The loss, while smaller than those at Delta and United, was its first negative pre-tax number in since 2009.

The airline is already implementing some changes aimed at keeping both its passengers and employees healthy. In addition to improved onboard cleaning procedures, it is installing plexiglass shields at ticket counters and gates to minimize the spread of the virus, said Southwest operations chief Michael Van de Ven during the call.

A decision on any possible onboard social distancing plan, and other health and safety improvements, will be made in the next 30 days, he said.

“The highest priority is to… implement whatever additional procedures are needed to minimize the spread of the virus,” said Van de Ven.

Related: Southwest Airlines CEO ‘fights’ to avoid furloughs, layoffs after coronavirus

Featured image by John Gress Media Inc/Shutterstock.

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