Southwest Airlines announced Thursday that it will start fully booking popular routes, unblocking middle seats that it has kept vacant for months to make travelers feel safer during the pandemic.
The Dallas-based carrier cited several studies that the airline said shows the risk of getting coronavirus on an airplane is extremely rare when everyone wears a mask. In one case, the International Air Transport Association found 44 cases of Covid-19 transmission associated with plane travel, with most recorded before airlines adopted enhanced cleaning procedures and mask requirements, according to a news release.
“That’s 44 people out of the nearly 1.2 billion passengers who have traveled in 2020, or one case for every 27 million travelers this year. As IATA suggests, this is approximately the same risk category as being struck by lightning,” Southwest said in a statement.
Southwest cited studies that showed catching Covid-19 during flight is approximately the same risk category as being struck by lightning.
Another study from Airbus, Boeing and Embraer found that an airplane's airflow systems, filters and seatback barriers, along with wearing a mask, make flying safer than being in another type of indoor environment.
“We expect demand to be stronger around the holidays so it probably makes sense to make more seats available to customers in December,” Helane Becker, managing director and senior research analyst at Cowen, told NBC News.
Becker also cited the IATA study as proof transmission rates are lower in air travel.
The decision to open up middle seats comes as Southwest posted its biggest ever quarterly loss on Thursday. The airline reported a loss of $1.2 billion in the three months ended Sept. 30. During the same period last year, Southwest posted a $659 million profit.
"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,'' the airline said in a statement Thursday. "Today, aligned with science-based findings from trusted medical and aviation organizations, we will resume selling all available seats for travel beginning Dec. 1, 2020.''
Delta and Alaska are the only two U.S. airlines now committing to block middle seats through January. With Southwest now gearing up to run full flights during the post-Thanksgiving travel holiday period, some customers expressed concern about whether this was the right choice.
“This is disheartening. Even with the middle seat empty I was almost too nervous to consider return to SW air travel. Are you requiring 100% mask compliance?” one person wrote on Twitter. “I would definitely get off a plane if even one person is not wearing their mask.”
Another person questioned why middle seats are being unblocked when cases are starting to surge.
“Very upsetting to learn this just as all the scientific, solid predictions are that cases are spiraling upward and will continue thru the winter,” they wrote. “With this policy I would not risk flying even for a family emergency. Hope you’ll roll this back.”
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Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said on Thursday that the airline is seeing “modest improvements in leisure passenger trends since the slowdown we experienced in July,” but noted recovery won’t be any time soon.
“However, until we have widely available vaccines and achieve herd immunity, we expect passenger traffic and booking trends to remain fragile,” he said.
Thankfully, for nervous flyers who don’t like the new policy, there is some reassurance. Southwest has a flexible change policy, so travelers who book themselves on flights that are fuller than they’re comfortable with will have the option to find an alternative flight without paying change fees.