Southwest to offer refunds for passengers uncomfortable with middle seat sales

Southwest to offer refunds for passengers uncomfortable with middle seat sales
A Southwest Airlines jet is shown behind a tree branch at Sunset Park as it comes in for a landing at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada. The nation's 10th busiest airport recorded a 53% decrease in arriving and departing passengers for March compared to the same month in 2019, a drop of more than 2.3 million travelers, as the COVID-19 pandemic impacts the travel industry. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Southwest Airlines announced Thursday the company will resume selling middle seats on flights beginning Dec. 1.

The airline previously blocked the sale of middle seats to enforce distance between passengers amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“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,” Southwest said in a news release this week.

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“A growing body of data and research supports that face masks and enhanced cleaning, coupled with HEPA filtration, are highly effective measures to protect against the transmission of COVID-19 in air travel,” the company stated. “We will continue to take a science-based approach as we evaluate our procedures and policies moving forward and will collaborate with the Stanford University School of Medicine for insights that will help us evolve our policies.”

The airline will still require passengers to wear masks on flights.

Those who are not comfortable with the updated policy can request a refund if they purchased a plane ticket before Oct. 23 for December dates and beyond. The airline will proactively send emails to passengers on affected flights and will allow passengers to receive a cash reimbursement instead of the normal flight credit refund. Requests for refunds must be submitted by Oct. 31.

Also beginning in December, customers who book flights that become nearly full will be notified of the plane’s capacity a few days before the flight and will have the option, if flights are available, to change to another flight within three days of their original flight at no extra cost.

Until then, Southwest is one of only five airlines still blocking seats more than seven months after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“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," said CEO Gary Kelly.

The airline’s President, Tom Nealon, said the airline did not initially block middle seats because it was required to or because it was a part of their safety plan.

"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.''