In an earnings report on Thursday, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly announced that on Dec. 1, 2020, the Dallas-based carrier will no longer limit capacity on its flights and begin filling middle seats that were previously kept open. The policy change comes as the airline looks to fill planes through the holiday travel season and reports that verify the safety of air travel. “I’m happy that we have the scientific evidence to provide comfort and assurance that it is safe to unblock the middle seats,” Kelly said during the call.
"This practice of effectively keeping middle seats open bridged us from the early days of the pandemic, when we had little knowledge about the behavior of the virus, to now," the airline said in a statement. "Today, aligned with science-based findings from trusted medical and aviation organizations, we will resume selling all available seats for travel beginning Dec. 1, 2020."
Southwest said it would notify customers on a flight ahead of time if more than 65 percent of seats are sold.
During the call, the airline said it believes the missed revenue from leaving middle seats empty amounted to nearly $20 million in October and up to $60 million in November.
When asked if the demand for middle seats during the pandemic would be high enough to meet those figures, a rep from Southwest told TripSavvy, “we can’t really speak in future-specific terms about traffic, and the theme of this year is that there are wild swings governed by local dynamics (quarantines and lockdowns and such), seasonality, days of week. With a network of business and destinations as complex as Southwest’s, there’s really no way really to speak to ‘passengers per flight.’”
The change in policy leaves Delta as the last of the big four carriers to limit seating on its aircraft. During a conference call last week, Delta CEO Ed Bastian announced their middle-seat policy would run at least through January 2021, though that would vary depending on consumer confidence. "We've got a lot of studies coming out from experts on the safety of air travel," Bastian said on the call. "Sometime in the first half of next year, I have no doubt, we will be [lifting] those caps. But we haven't picked a date yet, and I'd say we will continue to start the new year with the caps in place."
Passengers that have already booked travel into December and beyond received an email today from Southwest stating that those uncomfortable sitting next to another passenger will have the opportunity to receive a full refund, so long as the request is made before Oct. 31, 2020. "While we have communicated having our ‘Middle Seats open through November 30,’ we understand that you may have made your booking hoping we would continue to limit the number of Passengers onboard beyond that date," the airline wrote.
Meanwhile, United Airlines and American Airlines have been selling every seat for months, with United chief communications officer Josh Earnest calling the process of blocking seats nothing more than a marketing ploy. "Blocking middle seats is a PR strategy, not a safety strategy," Earnest said in a recent call with the media. A recent study found that, so long as passengers remained masked, the risk of transmission in airplanes was limited, in large part due to specialized airflow and filtration systems within the aircraft.