Southwest will leave its middle seats open through at least November, offering social distance to anxious Thanksgiving travelers

  • Southwest Airlines said it will block middle seats on flights through November.
  • Whether or not to block middle seats has been a topic of debate for airlines during the pandemic as travel demand remains down 70%.
  • Evidence suggests blocking the middle seat cuts the risk of COVID-19 transmission in half, but studies suggest risk for exposure is low as long as everyone onboard is masked.
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Travelers worried about the coronavirus on packed flights during the Thanksgiving holiday have something to be thankful for: Southwest said it will block middle seats through the end of November.

The airline announced on Wednesday that it would extend capacity limits on its flights through November 30, part of an effort to reassure passengers that flying is safe as airlines look towards the busy holiday travel period. 

"Southwest has been operating flights with middle seats open throughout the summer and has added thousands of flights to in-demand destinations to provide extra seats for on-board physical distancing and added comfort," Southwest's chief marketing officer, Ryan Green, said in a statement.

Whether to fill middle seats on flights or leave them empty has been a topic of debate for airlines, with carriers taking two general approaches. Some, like Southwest, Delta, and JetBlue, have continued to block the seats and limit capacity on planes, gambling that even if the decision hurts revenue performance on flights, passengers may be more willing to fly with them.

Others, like American, United, and Spirit, have argued that there is no practical safety improvement from blocking the seats and that adequate social distancing on an airplane is impossible. One United executive described the blocked middle seats as "a PR strategy," not a safety move.

The limited research available, however, has suggested that blocking the middle seats could cut the risk of onboard COVID-19 transmission in half, although the overall risk is fairly low either way as long as everyone onboard wears masks.

Air travel demand is down about 70% compared to 2019 levels, with a full recovery not expected until at least 2024.

Airlines have implemented stringent new cleaning procedures during the pandemic, and air circulation patterns on airplanes are believed to largely limit on-board transmission. The blocked middle seat strategy appears to be largely a marketing move, even if there are some safety benefits — evidence suggests that it's a winning marketing strategy.

Delta has said it will continue to limit capacity through at least January 6. Alaska Airlines will block middle seats through at least October 31, and JetBlue will continue to block the seats through at least October 15.

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