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Southwest Airlines to start filling middle seats, leaving Delta as last holdout

The dreaded middle seat is mostly back.

Southwest Airlines Co.
LUV,
+5.74%

said Thursday it will resume booking middle seats on its flights starting Dec. 1.

“I was a bit surprised by this news,” said Scott Keyes, co-founder of travel site Scott’s Cheap Flights. Southwest built its name as one of the most customer-friendly U.S. airlines, and the public would still love to see the seats blocked, he said.

That leaves Delta Air Lines Inc.
DAL,
+7.00%

as the sole U.S. legacy carrier still blocking past November the perennially unpopular seats, made even less desirable with the pandemic and fears of COVID-19 contagion.

Delta reiterated earlier this month it will keep blocking its middle seats through at least Jan. 6, with exceptions for those traveling together, with an eye for setting itself apart ahead of holiday travel.

“I would be surprised if Delta holds off much longer,” Keyes said. Of all the COVID-19-related measures airlines have announced, blocking the middle seat is “by far the most expensive,” he said.

It was also far easier to have the policy in place when fewer people ventured out on airplanes in first few months of the pandemic; flights are on average about 60% full nowadays, he said.

Delta and Southwest shares rose more than 6% on Thursday following quarterly results earlier for Southwest and others. The U.S. Global Jets ETF
JETS,
+4.11%

gained more than 3%, and the boost from airlines’ results seemed to lift shares of online travel companies, with Expedia Group Inc.
EXPE,
+8.85%

stock among the big gainers, up nearly 8%.

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Alaska Air Group Inc.
ALK,
+3.02%
,
which had said its middle-seat blocking policy would end in November, said Thursday it was extending the block through Jan. 6 as well as capping the number of passengers on its flights.

“There can be occasions where extra space cannot be guaranteed due to unforeseen changes such as reaccommodating guests from a previously canceled flight,” Alaska said.

JetBlue Airways Corp.
JBLU,
+9.38%

has said it is blocking “the vast majority of middle seats on larger planes (and most aisle seats on smaller ones)” through Dec. 1, but advises passenger wanting “to guarantee that the seat next to you is empty” to buy extra seats.

Avoiding middle-seat elbow fights had been one front in the battle to lure back wary air travelers.

U.S. airlines cut flight capacity, scrapped aircraft ahead of schedule and received billions of dollars in bailout money to preserve jobs, yet it will take several years for the industry to get back to pre-COVID-19 capacity, with some capacity likely lost for even longer.

Related: After an unprecedented hard landing, the airline industry is facing a long path to a new takeoff

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 the press release announcing its third-quarter earnings that tucked in news of the demise of its middle-seat blocking.

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The decision to resume booking the seats is “aligned with science-based findings from trusted medical and aviation organizations,” the company said. Southwest will offer “enhanced flexibility” for customers on fuller flights to rebook, it said.

It cited the advice of medical professionals from the University of Texas and Stanford University, and also recent studies about the minimal risks of COVID-19 transmission on board combined with air filtering, cleaning, and other protocols.

Southwest reported a narrower-than-expected third-quarter loss and revenue that fell less than forecast. It said that operating revenue would need to recover to 60% to 70% of 2019 levels, or about double third-quarter results, for it to get to cash flow break-even.

American Airlines Group Inc. also reported third-quarter results on Thursday, showing narrower losses and revenue drop as well.

It’s no wonder that only Delta remains committed to not booking middle seats.

Airlines are between the proverbial rock and hard place when it comes to managing consumer preferences about the middle seat.

Overhead costs are the same whether a flight is full or empty. For the carriers with seating restrictions, it can be tricky to hit the right balance between offsetting the impact of fewer seats sold with pricier tickets, which customers may or may not be willing to pay.

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Seating policies turned into another COVID-19-related flashpoint as social-media posts showing full flights emerged this summer, even as the majority of flights were empty.

Passenger air traffic has been on an upswing since late summer, even as some may not feel entirely comfortable with air travel until a vaccine is widely available.

The TSA reported earlier this week that the number of people passing through its airport checkpoints topped 1 million for the first time since mid-March.

Keyes has heard from many saying that they will travel even more next year or so to make up for their foiled travel plans.

“There’s reason for optimism,” Keyes said.

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