Southwest To Offer Complimentary Social Distancing Until October

Southwest will offer social distancing on flights until at least September 30th. As the US airline doesn’t provide reserved seating, the offer will be accomplished by limiting the number of tickets sold on flights.

Southwest Airlines plane
Southwest Airlines will sell fewer seats until October. Photo: Getty Images

Airlines around the world are increasingly throwing out social distancing. In their place, masks are generally being required by most airlines. It is even a mandatory requirement for most to wear masks on an aircraft in the United Kingdom from today. However, while masks are required on most US carriers, many are still implementing social distancing.

Southwest’s policy

Southwest has launched a new promise from check-in to deplaning. As part of its pledge, the airline points out that its top priority is customer safety. As such, the promise outlines the measures being taken to ensure the safety of passengers traveling in the post-COVID era.

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During the height of the current crisis, almost every airline was offering social distancing where it could. However, many around the world have now removed this policy. The significant exception to this rule is the United States of America, where many carriers are still offering social distancing.

Southwest Airlines, Basic Economy, Gary Kelly
The airline doesn’t offer reserved seating, so passengers must still choose to social distance. Photo: Getty Images

Southwest is joining Delta in extending its social distancing policy until September 30th. Of course, it isn’t as simple as blocking every middle seat when Southwest’s seating is unreserved. As such, the airline will cap ticket sales, effectively only selling the window and aisle seats. The airline will continue to let passengers pick their own seats, and those traveling together can sit together.

Is social distancing effective?

Just over a month ago, IATA, the International Air Transport Association, stated that it did not support mandating social distancing measures that leave middle seats empty.

Instead, it argued that due to the already low-risk of COVID-19 transmission onboard flights, mandatory face coverings should instead be used. Even when social distancing is implemented, passengers are still sitting less than the recommended 1.5 meters from each other.

Southwest takes off from DIA
IATA does not support social distancing on flights. Photo: Getty Images

Indeed, blocking middle seats comes at a cost to airlines, that will ultimately be passed on to passengers. According to IATA, the average 2019 fare in North America was $202. This meant that airlines broke even when the aircraft was 75% full.

If all the middle seats on Southwest’s 737s remain unsold, only 66% of tickets would be sold. To offset the revenue lost by partially filled flights in North America, average fares would need to be increased by 43% to $289.

At the time the group’s director-general and CEO said:

“Eliminating the middle seat will raise costs. If that can be offset with higher fares, the era of affordable travel will come to an end. On the other hand, if airlines can’t recoup the costs in higher fares, airlines will go bust.”

Is Southwest right to implement social distancing? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!