COVID-19

Flying soon? That middle seat might be occupied

Samantha Fields Nov 3, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
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Passengers board a flight in Lima, Peru, in July. Southwest Airlines said keeping its middle seats open cost the company $20 million in September alone. Raul Sifuentes/Getty Images
COVID-19

Flying soon? That middle seat might be occupied

Samantha Fields Nov 3, 2020
Passengers board a flight in Lima, Peru, in July. Southwest Airlines said keeping its middle seats open cost the company $20 million in September alone. Raul Sifuentes/Getty Images
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Air travel is still way down compared to this time last year. But it is picking up. As it does, more airlines are interested in increasing capacity on their flights. 

Southwest recently announced that it will start making middle seats available on Dec. 1. And Delta’s CEO said it’ll likely do the same sometime in early 2021. 

Bridget Fetzer and her husband were planning to fly from Baltimore to San Diego in December, rent a convertible and drive up the coast to San Francisco. They had the tickets and everything.

“Then in October, my husband got an email from Southwest that said that they are no longer going to keep the middle seats empty on the flights,” she said.

That made them nervous. Fetzer had flown once, earlier in the pandemic, to Kentucky on a pretty empty plane. 

“There were a lot of people that weren’t wearing their masks, or like they were pulling them down below their noses and stuff like that,” Fetzer said.

And the idea of that happening on a full flight was a deal breaker. She and her husband canceled their trip. 

A lot of people do still feel safer with an empty seat next to them on a plane, said Edward Russell, who covers aviation for the travel site The Points Guy. 

“The reality, though, is that can’t continue forever,” he said. “Airlines are for-profit businesses.”

Businesses that have been hemorrhaging money for months. 

Southwest said its policy of blocking middle seats cost the airline roughly $20 million in September and could cost it up to $60 million in November. 

“American and United from early on have not blocked middle seats and shown that people are still willing to fly them,” Russell said. “They’ve seen their passenger numbers rise.”

It’s still unclear how much keeping middle seats empty could reduce the risk of getting COVID on a plane, said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt. But, he said, “the closer we are to more people for prolonged periods of time in an enclosed space, our risk goes up.”

If airlines are going to fill every seat, “that makes it all the more important that everyone on the aircraft wear their masks for as long as possible,” he said.

That’s the only way Fetzer would consider getting on a full flight: If everyone was wearing a mask — correctly — the whole time. That, or the pandemic was under control. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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