Southwest Airlines chief executive Gary Kelly announced on Thursday that the Dallas-based airline would start selling every available seat on its flights beginning December 1, saying new evidence had given the carrier confidence that filling middle seats were safe. Southwest was one of just a handful of airlines around the world that restricted passenger capacity on its jets in order to offer nervous passengers a form of social distancing onboard.
“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,” Kelly explained as the airline announced its third-quarter results for 2020.
“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,” Kelly said while offering customers booked on busy flights the opportunity to rebook for free onto an alternative service.
The change in policy brings Southwest in line with the likes of United and American Airlines who never had a formal middle seat blocking policy but both airlines allows passengers to catch an alternative flight if their booked service is full.
In contrast, Delta Air Lines has committed to blocking middle seats through to January 6, 2021 at the earliest. Kelly, however, insists that a greater understanding of the virus shows that onboard social distancing isn’t necessary.
“According to research put forth within the last two weeks by several reputable institutions, all arriving at the same conclusion—the risk of breathing COVID-19 particles on an airplane is virtually non-existent, with the combination of air filtration and face covering requirements,” he explained.
“The combined studies, research, and counsel we have received, thus far, give us confidence in our approach and timing of this change to the Southwest Promise.”
Southwest will continue to insist that all passengers wear a face mask onboard and throughout the airport. Aircraft cleaning protocols have also been enhanced.
The airline reported a daily cash burn of $12 million – down from $16 million per day in September. During the third quarter, Southwest lost a total of $1.2 billion but Kelly noted that the airline still had $15.6 billion in liquidity to see it through the Corona crisis.
Southwest has so far avoided involuntary furloughs and says redundancies can be avoided through to the end of 2021 but Kelly called on lawmakers to pass a federal stimulus bill that would include payroll support for the airline industry. Without such assistance, he warned, Southwest would need to ask for temporary concessions amongst unionized staff. Full employment cannot be guaranteed without federal support, Kelly warned.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.