Southwest Airlines faces backlash after announcing it's unblocking middle seats: 'Social distancing is NOT optional'

Korin Miller
·7 min read
A passenger wears personal protective equipment (PPE) while aboard a Southwest Airlines flight. The airline announced it will unblock the middle seat on flights starting Nov. 30. (Mario Tama/ Getty Images)
A passenger wears personal protective equipment (PPE) while aboard a Southwest Airlines flight. The airline announced it will unblock the middle seat on flights starting Nov. 30. (Mario Tama/ Getty Images)

Southwest Airlines is coming under fire after announcing the company will unblock the middle seats on flights, starting Nov. 30. The airline shared the news in a series of tweets on Thursday.

“This decision was not made lightly, and we'd like to share how we arrived at it,” the company wrote. Southwest then cited “a growing body of data and research” that supports that the use of face masks and enhanced cleaning, along with HEPA air filtration “are highly effective measures to protect against the transmission of COVID-19 in air travel.”

Video: Southwest will resume selling middle seats after reporting $1.2 billion loss

Southwest also shared a bulletin from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that analyzed mask usage and ventilation. “When all onboard wore masks, infection risk from breathing was reduced to less than 1%,” Southwest wrote. The company then cited data from a Department of Defense study that “concluded that a commercial aircraft’s air system provides more protection than the standards in several key areas of a hospital” and a report from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) that found that, out of 1.2 billion air passengers who traveled between January and July, there were only 44 reported cases of COVID-19 transmission. “That’s one case for every 27.3 million flyers; similar to the odds of being struck by lightning,” Southwest wrote.

Southwest ended on this note: “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. … We’re committed to your well-being and comfort, and we can’t wait to see you.”

The comments on the posts were mixed. “This is disheartening. Even with the middle seat empty I was almost too nervous to consider return to SW air travel. Are you requiring 100% mask compliance? I would definitely get off a plane if even one person is not wearing their mask,” one person wrote.

“Do this and we will stop flying you until vaccinated,” another said. “Social distancing is NOT optional. We refuse to be forced to sit close to others who are potentially infected.

“You know from research you are most likely to contract the infection from someone sitting next to you all the modeling shows this,” someone else wrote.

But not everyone was worried. “I’ve had such great experiences on recent flights! So clean and the staff is working extra hard,” one person wrote. “Anybody complaining and saying I’ll be ‘flying someone else.’ I’ve also been on many sold out AA flights where boarding was cattle herd vibes. So good luck flying with any airline getting close to do it as well as SW! Will be traveling with y’all for the holidays too :),” another said.

A publicist for Southwest referred Yahoo Life to a press release about the company’s third-quarter earnings report. The release states that the company suffered a net loss of $1.2 billion in the third quarter. “We are encouraged by modest improvements in leisure passenger traffic trends since the slowdown in demand experienced in July,” Gary C. Kelly, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Southwest Airlines, says in a statement in the release. “However, until we have widely-available vaccines and achieve herd immunity, we expect passenger traffic and booking trends to remain fragile. In response, we will continue to monitor demand and prudently adjust our available seat miles (ASMs, or capacity), while pursuing further revenue and cost opportunities.”

Kelly echoed many of the sentiments from the company’s middle-seat tweet thread, noting, “Our top priority remains, and always will be, the safety of our Employees and Customers.”

Southwest Airlines publicist Brian Parrish told Yahoo Life in a statement that the company will allow people who have already booked flights to get a refund on tickets that are scheduled for Dec. 1 or later. Customers who keep their booking will also be notified two to three days before travel if their flight is booked to a capacity where middle seats will likely be occupied. “Those Customers will be given the option to change to a flight — if another flight is available — that is less full within three days of their original flight at no additional charge,” he said.

Meanwhile, Alaska Airlines reaffirmed its seat policy in a tweet on Thursday afternoon, saying that while “it’s safe to fly in any seat,” the company plans to keep middle seats blocked on flights through Jan. 6 2021 “to help guests feel comfortable flying again.”

Experts are mixed on this one.

“Data so far would indicate that air travel is substantially less hazardous than was first considered,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Yahoo Life. “If everybody is obliged to wear masks, opening up the middle seat is probably a reasonable next step.”

Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, agrees. “Data shows people wearing masks on airplanes significantly minimize the risk of viral exposure,” he told Yahoo Life. And, he says “if masking is in place,” it is “unlikely” that seating people shoulder-to-shoulder on flights will lead to outbreaks.

But adding passengers to the middle seat violates the basics of social distancing, Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, told Yahoo Life. “That doesn’t work well with social distancing, which we know is one of the most crucial precautions one can take to avoid COVID-19,” he said.

There’s also this to consider: Southwest said in response to a tweet that it would be “starting a light snack and beverage service for flights that are over 250 miles. Of course, Customers are always able to bring their own snacks and non-alcoholic beverages onboard.” That also didn’t sit well with people online.

“How do [you] maintain 100% mask compliance ... if travelers are eating and drinking in flight?” one wrote. “So for a 6 hour flight, passengers have to remove mask to drink at least, obviously it’s not healthy to not drink for 6 hours straight. So if the middle seat is unblocked passengers will be technically unmasked for a good amount of time next to each other,” another said.

Adalja agrees that’s not ideal. Instead, he says, the airline “might want to stagger” drink and food distribution “so that not everyone’s eating at once.”

Overall, though, Schaffner says travel is risky right now. “I worry about cases increasing all over the country and people traveling more for the holidays,” he says. “Travel is still a risky experience, whether people are wearing masks or not. Ask yourself: ‘Is this trip essential?’”

This story was originally published on Oct. 22, 2020 at 2:32 pm. ET and has been updated to include Alaska Airlines’ seat policy.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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