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Southwest will start filling middle seats on flights beginning Dec. 1

The airline says it will give passengers on “fuller flights” the option to rebook.

(Charlie Riedel/AP)

Low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines, which has been limiting the number of seats sold on its flights since May, announced in its third-quarter earnings report today that it will halt the practice beginning Dec. 1.

The policy will go into effect after Thanksgiving, which typically brings the busiest air travel day of the year.

“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 chief executive Gary Kelly said in a statement. “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.”

The airline said on an earnings call that it will notify passengers two days before travel if their flight is near full, and will give passengers the option to be rebooked onto another flight for free if one is available. Southwest says its in-flight HEPA filters, enhanced cleanings, new boarding and deplaning procedures, and mandatory mask policy represent a “multi-layered” safety approach to the pandemic.

The airline reported a loss of $1.2 billion this quarter because of the impact of the coronavirus on air travel.

“We are committed to taking care of our Employees and Customers while protecting the financial health of our Company through the most challenging time in our nearly 50-year history,” Kelly said.

Southwest will join competitors United and American airlines in returning to filling flights as normal. Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines have said they will block seats on flights to maintain social distancing through Jan. 6, 2021. Hawaiian Airlines will block middle seats on its flights through Dec. 15. JetBlue continues to block 30 percent of the seats on its flights, but it is no longer guaranteeing empty middle seats.

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