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6 things to know about Southwest’s new pandemic policy: No, middle seats won’t be empty. Yes, you can get a refund.

  • October 23, 2020

With travel slowly resuming and airlines still in a world of financial hurt, Southwest Airlines this week did what experts have long said was inevitable: ditched its coronavirus pandemic policy of keeping middle seats open.

The nation’s largest domestic carrier, which has capped the number of passengers per flight at 66% since May, is selling all available seats on each flight for travel beginning Dec. 1. It’s a move made months ago by rivals United and American. All say flying is one of the safest activities around given hospital-grade air filters, mandatory mask wearing and intense cleaning measures.

Passenger reaction was swift and predictable, with thousands commenting on Southwest’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. Some blasted the decision as putting profits over passenger and employee health, and many said they won’t fly Southwest as a result. Others said they understand it’s a business decision.

“I have a reservation for mid December which I will now be canceling. I prefer an airline that values lives over profit,” a Facebook user from Delaware posted.

Southwest Airlines President Tom Nealon said on the airline’s earnings call Thursday that it will take time for passengers to warm up to the idea of fuller planes again because travelers love the idea of an empty middle seat, pandemic or not.

“Just to be clear, the open middle seat, it was really not one of our safety components,” he said. “This was really about customer confidence and getting them comfortable traveling again.”

Here are 6 things to know about Southwest Airlines middle seat policy change 

1. Yes, you can get a refund if you bought Southwest tickets before Oct. 23 for flights in December and beyond. Southwest is sending affected passengers an email with a link to request a refund. The airline usually issues travel credits when flights are canceled, but in this case will credit travelers’ original form of payment. Don’t dawdle, though. You have to request it by Oct. 31. 

2. No, you can’t buy an extra seat to keep the middle seat open on your flight. Southwest only sells extra seats to customers of size and those with a disability.

3. Yes, you have options, for now at least, on other airlines if the thought of a packed plane freaks you out. Book on Delta or Alaska, which have said they will keep seats open through Jan. 6. Don’t get used to the idea though. Both have said they will likely begin selling all seats early next year. 

4. No, this doesn’t mean every middle seat on every flight will be filled. Southwest and other carriers are still struggling to attract travelers during the pandemic, so some flights will naturally have empty seats, especially during off-peak travel times. But on that Christmas or winter break flight to Florida, Arizona or Mexico? Make room for neighbors.

5. Yes, there’s an escape hatch as your travel date draws near. Southwest said it will warn travelers two or three days before their fight if it’s likely to be full or nearly full, meaning middle seats will be occupied. Passengers will have the option, if flights are available, to change to another flight within three days of their original flight at no charge, the airline says. The keywords there are “if available.” Airlines have slashed flights this year due to the plunge in travel.

6. No, Southwest isn’t likely to change its mind and keep middle seats open. It’s losing bookings to competitors (an estimated $40 to $60 million worth in November due to the policy being in place over Thanksgiving.) CEO Gary Kelly said Southwest is one of just five airlines in the world still blocking some seats eight months into the pandemic. In addition to Southwest, Delta and Alaska, Hawaiian and JetBlue are still blocking some seats. “So there’s more than ample evidence that a change is the right thing to do, based on all the science that we’ve got available to us now.”

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