Southwest Airlines to stop blocking middle seats in December

Masked passengers fill a Southwest Airlines flight from Burbank, California, to Las Vegas on June 3, 2020, with middle seats left open. (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Masked passengers fill a Southwest Airlines flight from Burbank, California, to Las Vegas on June 3, 2020, with middle seats left open. (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Southwest Airlines, the second-largest carrier in Atlanta, said it will end its pandemic-driven policy of blocking middle seats Dec. 1.

Gary Kelly, CEO of the Dallas-based airline, made the announcement Thursday while reporting the company’s financial results, saying “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,” his written statement continued, "aligned with science-based findings from trusted medical and aviation organizations, we will resume selling all available seats for travel beginning December 1, 2020.”

Southwest said customers on “fuller flights” can rebook to another flight if desired.

Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines, the dominant carrier at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, has said it plans to block middle seats through Jan. 6.

That leaves Delta as the only major network carrier to block middle seats through the holiday travel season. United and American are no longer blocking middle seats. Alaska Airlines, a smaller carrier, said it will block middle seats through Jan. 6.

Although Delta is blocking middle seats, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee passengers will have an empty seat next to them.

That’s because not all airplanes have middle seats. On smaller aircraft like Delta Connection regional jets with two seats on each side of the aisle per row, passengers could still be seated directly next to a stranger. Delta says it will block “select aisle seats” on those aircraft.

“The middle seat blocking is a challenge on regionals because you don’t have a middle seat," Delta’s chief customer experience officer Bill Lentsch said in a Facebook Live video this week. But, he said, “we have selectively gone in and blocked seats from being booked on the regional flights."

Travelers may also still see middle seats occupied on larger Delta planes. That’s because families and groups traveling together can book a middle seat to sit next to each other.

Delta said in August that it would cap seating on its planes at 75% capacity in the main cabin from October through early January. That’s up from the 60% cap it had through Sept. 30.

In business class on Delta widebody jets, which have more spacious seating configurations, there are no capacity limits.

When Delta will lift seating caps will depend on “consumer sentiment and confidence in air travel,” CEO Ed Bastian said last week.

“Sometime in the first half of next year, I have no doubt we will be lifting those caps,” he said.

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