Southwest Airlines to Unblock Middle Seats Ahead of Holiday Travel

Southwest Airlines will now start booking every seat on popular routes beginning in December for holiday travel, including the middle seat. The Dallas-based airline stopped booking middle seats months ago to help customers feel safe during the coronavirus pandemic. However, the company cited recent studies showing that transmission of the disease on planes is rare if everyone is wearing a face mask.

On Thursday, Southwest specifically pointed to a recent study by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which found that only 44 cases of COVID-19 transmission were linked to plane travel, reports NBC News. "That’s 44 people out of the nearly 1.2 billion passengers who have traveled in 2020, or one case for every 27 million travelers this year. As IATA suggests, this is approximately the same risk category as being struck by lightning," Southwest said in a statement. Airbus, Boeing, and Embracer also shared a study that claims wearing a mask, along with an airplane's airflow systems, filters, and seatback barriers are safer than indoor environments.

"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," Southwest said in its quarterly earnings report. "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." The company noted that there will also be "enhanced flexibility" for customers on packed flights to switch to another flight if they wish.

Customers who already bought tickets for a flight in December will be sent an email on Friday, the airline said, reports USA Today. Customers can get a refund (not just a voucher for a future flight), no matter what kind of ticket they purchased. The refund request has to be submitted by Oct. 31. When tickets for middle seats become available, the airline will let passengers know two to three days before the flight if their flight will be full, so they can have the opportunity to change to another flight at no extra cost.

Southwest's change was announced in the quarterly earnings report, which showed a loss of $1.2 billion due to the lack of travel during the pandemic. Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said executives are "encouraged" by a small increase in demand since July. "However, until we have widely-available vaccines and achieve herd immunity, we expect passenger traffic and booking trends to remain fragile," Kelly added.