Southwest Airlines will no longer limit the number of seats for sale on each flight, joining rivals American and United.
The new policy, which means middle seats will once again be filled on flights with strong demand, takes effect Dec. 1, after Thanksgiving but ahead of the Christmas and New Year's travel season.
The airline has limited the number of seats for sale for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, wooing skittish travelers. American and United have been filling flights for months, with United executives calling blocked middle seats a marketing ploy rather than a safety measure.
"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,'' the airline said in a statement Thursday. "Today, 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 CEO Gary Kelly said in an interview on CNBC Thursday that flying is a "very safe environment.''
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Southwest said passengers who already bought tickets for travel in December and beyond will be notified via email on Friday and given the option of a refund (not just a voucher for future travel) regardless of the type of ticket they bought. The refund must be requested by Oct. 31.
When the new policy takes effect, the airline said it plans to notify passengers two to three days before travel if their flight is going to be full and they will be given the option to change to a less full flight at no charge if one is available.
Southwest's move is motivated by money, of course. The airline lost $20 million in bookings in October due to the seat caps and faces a loss of at least double that amount in in November due to Thanksgiving travel, Southwest President Tom Nealon said on the airline's earnings call with Wall Street analysts and the media.
With Southwest's move, Delta and Alaska Airlines are now the only U.S. carriers limiting the number of seats for sale into early January, a period that covers the entire holiday travel season. Alaska on Thursday extended its policy through Jan. 6, matching Delta.
Southwest announced its policy change in its third-quarter earnings report.Southwest reported a loss of $1.2 billion due to the plunge in travel demand brought on by the pandemic, joining other airlines reporting massive losses.
"We are encouraged by modest improvements in leisure passenger traffic trends since the slowdown in demand experienced in July,'' Kelly said in a statement. "However, until we have widely-available vaccines and achieve herd immunity, we expect passenger traffic and booking trends to remain fragile.''
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Southwest Airlines to stop blocking middle seats in December