Southwest Airlines on Thursday said that it will stop its policy of blocking the middle seats on its flights starting on Dec. 1.
“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,” Gary Kelly, Southwest CEO and chairman of the board, said in the carrier’s third quarter earnings call 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. 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,” he added.
The move will make Southwest one of the last major carriers to switch to selling full flights—United Airlines and American made the change during the summer, while Alaska Airlines said it would be blocking middle seats until at least January. Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said during that airline’s third quarter earnings call that Delta will make the switch sometime before the mid-point of 2021 as consumer confidence in air travel returns.
Southwest, for its part, says that it made the decision, after research from the UT Southwestern Medical Center and Stanford University showed that “the risk of breathing COVID-19 particles on an airplane is virtually non-existent, with the combination of air filtration and face covering requirements.”
Southwest also said that it will allow its flyers some flexibility to rebook if they would rather not fly on a full flight.
“We are pairing this change with enhance flexibility for customers on fuller flights to rebook to another flight, if desired,” Kelly added.
The move comes ahead of the usually-busy holiday travel season and comes as demand for air travel continues to improve—this week, for the first time since March, the TSA reported screening over 1 million passengers a day and, also for the first time since March, ARC announced that travel agencies have booked over $1 billion in air tickets in one month. Still, passenger traffic is down over 60% compared to 2019.