Southwest Will Stop Blocking Seats On December 1, 2020

Southwest Will Stop Blocking Seats On December 1, 2020

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Southwest Airlines has had one of the most generous seat blocking policies during the pandemic, but that will finally be changing.

Southwest will sell flights to capacity as of December 1

As of December 1, 2020, Southwest Airlines will stop blocking seats on flights. For the past several months and through November 30, the airline is capping flights at 67% of capacity, meaning that no one has to sit next to a stranger on a plane.

As Southwest Airlines describes its policy change:

  • The airline blocked seats early on, when there was little knowledge about the behavior of the virus
  • Today, aligned with science-based findings from medical and aviation organizations, the airline feels the practice is no longer necessary
  • Southwest will offer enhanced flexibility for customers as of December 1, to rebook onto another flight at no cost in the event that a flight is full
  • The airline claims that research put forth within the last two weeks by several reputable sources suggests 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 will stop blocking seats as of December 1

This policy change was inevitable

In the early days of the pandemic there was little knowledge about the risk of being infected with coronavirus on a plane, and there was also a ton of fear, as so few people were flying. Most flights were nearly empty, so the cost of blocking seats was minimal, and it provided valuable reassure to travelers.

While demand for air travel is nowhere near where it was a year ago, airlines have adjusted capacity to better reflect demand. At this point at least some flights are operating at or near capacity.

For example, Southwest is reporting that in October and November load factors are anticipated to be 50-55%. So while on average flights aren’t more than two-thirds full, there’s presumably quite a bit of variability in terms of demand, and on some flights the policy is costing Southwest a lot of money.

How do other airlines compare?

In the US there are four major airlines blocking seats — Alaska, Delta, JetBlue, and Southwest.

With Southwest discontinuing this practice as of November 30, how does that compare to the policies of Alaska, Delta, and JetBlue?

  • Alaska is blocking seats through January 6, 2021
  • Delta is blocking seats through at least January 6, 2021; Delta CEO Ed Bastian has said that the airline will stop blocking seats in the first half of 2021, though no exact timeline has been shared yet
  • JetBlue is selling flights to no more than 70% full through December 1, 2020; there’s no specific guarantee for a blocked middle seat, though, and only time will tell when this policy changes

Delta is blocking seats through early 2021

Bottom line

Southwest Airlines will stop capping capacity on flights as of December 1, 2020. As the airline describes this decision, there’s very little risk of catching coronavirus on a plane thanks to masks and air filtration, so there’s no need for this anymore.

I imagine Southwest isn’t planning on achieving average load factors of more than 50-55% in the next few months. In other words, on many flights passengers will still get empty seats. But that won’t be the case across the board.

Looking at airline financial results from the past quarter, it doesn’t seem like seat blocking has led to all that much of a revenue premium, unfortunately.

Are you surprised to see Southwest end its seat blocking policy?

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  1. Mike Beauchamp

    @Chris UA started operating the packs during boarding/deplaning about a month ago in order to provide the best possible airflow/filtration during those times.

  2. stvr

    Insomuch as it makes people feel less safe flying (and it will), this isn't a profit-maximizing move for WN, sadly. People just won't fly at all, especially as cases spike.

  3. David

    Thank God. Every airline did it to satisfy the scared people who still show up to fly in a mask, face shield, goggles, and a hazmat suit. Or like a lady I saw not too long ago on a flight, wearing a scuba mask and snorkel with her mask. A row of 3 seats is barely 6 feet across so social distancing wasn't ever the reason for it, it was PR. American and United realized this a while back and started selling to capacity with little to no adverse effects PR-wise.

  4. derek

    The science says it doesn't help? Not true.

    3 main ways of spread.
    1. Large droplets. Masks, especially the surgical masks (which are no longer in short supply) help. So does social distancing.

    2. Airborne. Social distancing is not quite enough but more distance is needed. Any distance helps. Filtering the air helps but not completely. This is a tough problem to solve.

    3. Touching stuff. This is the least of the three but is a way to transmit.

  5. Steve_CC

    if you dont want to sit next to someone on a plane then dont fly, pretty simple. If you dont have a problem with it then fly, not sure what the big deal is.

  6. AlanD

    I’m surprised and disappointed that WN didn’t extend this through the Holidays. If already doing it for Thanksgiving, it wouldn’t hurt to do it an extra few weeks. I think so many people get stuck in the physiological aspects of spacing, they forget about the psychological aspects of returning to being on top of each other suddenly. I don’t think blocked middle seats are essential, but it has been a nice differentiator at this weird...

    I’m surprised and disappointed that WN didn’t extend this through the Holidays. If already doing it for Thanksgiving, it wouldn’t hurt to do it an extra few weeks. I think so many people get stuck in the physiological aspects of spacing, they forget about the psychological aspects of returning to being on top of each other suddenly. I don’t think blocked middle seats are essential, but it has been a nice differentiator at this weird time. The same studies that show no evidence of significant transmission on planes make the case for not requiring mask wearing on planes due to limited airborne spread in aircraft. Are we going to see airlines remove mask requirements soon? I doubt it. The only reason to stop blocking middle seats is to make more money. I don’t see airlines being as fast to drop mask requirements since there’s no financial gain.

  7. Roman

    Finally!...In order to meet the social distance guidelines you would be seated in a window seat with both seats to your left blocked, two seats forward of you and two seats rear also blocked. That's 14 seats empty around each person in a 3x3 configured aircraft. It was a social band aid to appease the same idiots that jump up and stand heel to toe for ten minutes waiting to depart the aircraft.

  8. Daniel D

    @MG

    No one is completely safe, whether it be before, during, or after COVID-19. Life carries risk. A very inconvenient and scary truth indeed.

    But I think Southwest is misrepresenting their decision. It's about the bottom line, not about safety. It's also about the completely dysfunctional government that is unable to pass any more covid-19 relief.

  9. SJ

    Not surprised. When SWA announced pay cuts coming on 1/1/2021, this had to be the next step. You can't cut pay for your employees when you aren't doing everything you can to increase revenue at the same time. The unions would never stop banging that drum and employees wouldn't forget anyway.

  10. Business Guy

    Being woke must be too expensive.

  11. Sharon

    social distancing is very very important. We must continue to wear the mask very diligently.

    and sanitize the hands, important!!

  12. George N Romey

    Really "our lives are worth nothing" are comments lacking any facts or intelligence. The chance of getting COVID on an airplane and then dying is a percentage next to nil. How about this? Airlines will now forever block middle seats and raise fares high enough to still be profitable. The same morons screaming "they're killing us" will now scream the "airlines are ripping us off."

    No one forces you to fly. If you think it's a danger to your health don't fly.

  13. MG

    @Chris so how does that logic apply to the gate area where they have every other seat blocked off? Or how about the 6 foot markers throughout the terminal? All for safety, right? This "science-backed" argument can't work both ways - that you have to social distance everywhere BUT on the actual plane in order to be safe.

  14. London

    Our lives are worth NOTHING!!

  15. Chris

    @MG its about the airflow. When you are boarding and deboarding the AC packs are not running and so you don't have the top to bottom airflow that exists to reduce the spread of the virus. When you have the AC packs running coupled with the HEPA filters, the chance of spread is next to nothing as we see by the fact any time there is spread from an aircraft it makes the news because of its rarity.

  16. MG

    Social distancing at the during boarding and deplaning - necessary for your safety!!! Once seated you can be shoulder to shoulder with a stranger - completely safe!!! It's either safe or it's not. Which is it?

  17. DL

    I have flight on Dec 1 with Alaska air, when I booked it, middle seats wasn't blocked but now it's showing middle seats are blocked. Maybe they are expending policy w/o official notice?

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Mike Beauchamp

@Chris UA started operating the packs during boarding/deplaning about a month ago in order to provide the best possible airflow/filtration during those times.

stvr

Insomuch as it makes people feel less safe flying (and it will), this isn't a profit-maximizing move for WN, sadly. People just won't fly at all, especially as cases spike.

David

Thank God. Every airline did it to satisfy the scared people who still show up to fly in a mask, face shield, goggles, and a hazmat suit. Or like a lady I saw not too long ago on a flight, wearing a scuba mask and snorkel with her mask. A row of 3 seats is barely 6 feet across so social distancing wasn't ever the reason for it, it was PR. American and United realized this a while back and started selling to capacity with little to no adverse effects PR-wise.

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