Southwest Will Stop Blocking Middle Seats Ahead of Holiday Travel

Southwest customers will instead have “enhanced flexibility” to rebook themselves on a different flight.

Southwest will stop blocking middle seats aboard its aircraft in December, the airline’s CEO said on Thursday.

“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,” Gary C. Kelly, Southwest’s chairman of the board and chief executive officer, 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 December 1, 2020.”

The airline uses an open-seating arrangement and lets passengers choose their own seats, but has limited the number of seats sold on flights to make it easier to social distance onboard. Last month, Southwest had extended its policy to block the middle seat through the end of November.

Kelly said Southwest customers will instead have “enhanced flexibility” to rebook themselves on a different flight. The airline will also continue enforcing its strict policy of requiring passengers to wear face masks.

Southwest plane interior
Courtesy of Southwest Airlines

This isn’t the first time Southwest has cut back on its COVID-19 protocols: In August, the airline decided to stop disinfecting armrests and seat belts between flights, choosing instead to only focus on areas like lavatories and tray tables.

When it lifts middle seat restrictions, Southwest will join American Airlines and United Airlines, both of which allowed flights to fill to capacity over the summer.

Like many carriers, Southwest has felt the strain of lower passenger demand during the pandemic, seeing a 32.8 percent decrease in capacity during the third quarter of 2020, compared to the same time period last year.

On Wednesday, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian told FOX Business the carrier would continue to block middle seats on their planes "well into next year.” The promise comes a week after Bastian said on an earnings call he had “no doubt we will be lifting those caps” sometime in 2021.

"We haven’t decided when next year is the right time to start to sell the middle seat, but, at this point in time, it’s going to be based very much on customer sentiment, what we’re learning from medical experts about advances and dealing with the virus, and when people are comfortable buying and sitting back in the middle seats — and that’s going to take a number of months," Bastian told the network.

Alison Fox is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure. When she’s not in New York City, she likes to spend her time at the beach or exploring new destinations and hopes to visit every country in the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram.

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