Updated October 22, 2020 - 3:35 pm
Southwest Airlines will unblock middle seats on flights beginning Dec. 1, the airline announced Thursday.
McCarran International Airport’s busiest airline said it is making the change now because of “science-based findings from trusted medical and aviation organizations” about how COVID-19 is spread.
The use of face coverings by all passengers and staff plus onboard air systems that introduce fresh air every two to three minutes in addition to HEPA-filtered air were highlighted as the main factors to onboard safety.
Southwest noted a study recently published by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health stating that wearing a surgical mask, combined with the ventilation rates, can decrease the risk of infection from respiratory particles to less than 1 percent.
“I’m happy that we have the scientific evidence to provide comfort and assurance that it is safe to unblock middle seats,” Gary Kelly, Southwest CEO, said on the airline’s third-quarter earnings call Thursday. “The scientific support arrives as demand continues to improve, which should absorb our 50 percent increase in seats offered for sale.”
The airline will email all customers with flights booked for travel after Nov. 30 to alert them to the change in policy regarding middle seats.
If passengers are uncomfortable with the middle seats being available, they will be offered a full refund without any fees.
Customers who keep their booking will be contacted two to three days before travel if their flight is booked to a capacity that makes middle seats likely to be occupied.
Those customers will be allowed to change their booking to another available, less-full flight within three days of their original travel date at no charge.
Although refunds are being made available, Southwest Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven said the airline is opening up middle seats with a clear conscience and scientific studies to back its decision.
“We would not have made this decision without the overwhelming data that makes clear that this does not put our employees or our customers at risk,” Van de Ven said Thursday. “We do have confidence in our decision based off all the medical expertise, studies, research and partnerships that are in place that this is safe and this is the right approach going forward.”