As we head into the holiday travel season, there won’t be many options left for passengers hoping for a little extra space when they fly.
Southwest Airlines just announced that it will resume selling all available seats for travel beginning on December 1, 2020. The Dallas-based airline is well known for its unconventional open-seating policy (fliers do not get assigned seats), but it had been limiting the number of seats sold on flights so that passengers could create some distance among them during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are one of just a few airlines in the world that limits the number of seats available for sale to promote distancing onboard our aircraft, and we will continue to do so through November,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said in the company’s third quarter earnings release on October 22.
“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. Today, aligned with science-based findings from trusted medical and aviation organizations, we will resume selling all available seats,” Kelly added.
The announcement comes on the heels of a new independent study from the U.S. Department of Defense that concluded that the risk of COVID-19 exposure on a plane is minimal due to the combination of mandatory masks and the air filtration systems onboard. After conducting more than 300 tests on United Airlines aircraft over a period of six months, the Defense Department found that when a passenger is seated with a mask on, only 0.003 percent of infected air particles can enter that passenger’s breathing zone—even when the plane is completely full.
Southwest said that for customers booked on fuller flights, the airline will make it easier to rebook to another flight, if the customer chooses—but did not specify exactly how it would be easier. (Southwest, like most other major carriers now, already does not charge a change fee.)
Southwest is one of four U.S. carriers still allowing for empty middle seats. Delta is blocking the selection of middle seats and limiting the number of customers per flight through at least January 6, 2021. Alaska is blocking middle seats through at least November 30, 2020. And Hawaiian is blocking middle seats, too, and has not put an end date on its policy.