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Southwest will resume filling middle seats on flights. Is this a good idea? | COMMENTARY

Masked passengers fill a Southwest Airlines flight from Burbank, California, to Las Vegas on June 3, 2020, with middle seats left open.
Masked passengers fill a Southwest Airlines flight from Burbank, California, to Las Vegas on June 3, 2020, with middle seats left open. (Christopher Reynolds/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

As she stepped aboard her Spirit flight to Baltimore, Donna Beall, a longtime emergency room nurse, assumed what I would assume: That, as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus, the middle seat in every row of a passenger plane would be left open by the airline to allow for social distancing.

But that was not the case.

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On recent flights between Baltimore and Fort Lauderdale, Beall found every seat full and, she says, about a third of the passengers removed their face masks. “As soon as the flight attendants walked by, they’d take the masks off, or drop them below their chins,” she says. “A lot of them did not have the mask covering their nose.”

Among them was the young woman sitting next to her.

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“She was 26 to 28 years old,” Beall says. “I asked her to put [the mask] back on, and she did for a little while. I asked her a couple of times, but … I just tried to sit as far away from her as possible.”

Which is not easy when every seat is full during a direct flight of more than two hours. Beall found the same conditions on a return trip from Baltimore to Atlanta and on her connection to Fort Lauderdale. “There was not a seat to be had,” she says. “Had I known, I would not have done it.”

Beall, a Maryland native who lives in Florida, is 51 years old and a veteran emergency room nurse. She has treated countless patients infected with the coronavirus since it arrived in the U.S. She works at St. Lucie Medical Center in Port St. Lucie and is used to wearing lots of protective gear while on the job. On her Spirit flights, as you can imagine, she felt far more vulnerable to the disease.

Maybe Beall should have known more about flight conditions before booking with Spirit; it is one of the airlines that have decided not to block the middle seats for social distancing. But, unless we need to fly, most of us aren’t paying attention. Because of the virus, millions of Americans have been opting out of air travel. The industry has taken a huge financial hit and asked Congress for help.

In the meantime, the airlines have been setting their own policies regarding bookings and seat blocking for safety. According to published reports, United and American airlines did not put a cap on passengers while Delta, JetBlue and Southwest did.

However, on Thursday, Southwest, with its huge operation at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, announced that, as of Dec. 1, it would no longer block the middle seats on flights. Having lost another $1.2 billion in the third quarter probably has a lot to do with that decision.

“Guaranteed distance onboard was introduced at a time when little was known about the behavior of the virus and to bring comfort to returning travelers,” Tony Roach, the airline’s managing director for customer experience, wrote in a blog post. “We now have a chorus of scientific studies that point to aircraft cabins as an environment where transmission of the virus is statistically improbable for two primary reasons: the uniform usage of masks and sophisticated air systems that introduce fresh air throughout a flight with a mix of … filtered air that replenishes the entire volume of cabin air every two to three minutes.”

Keywords in that post: “the uniform usage of masks.”

That calls for full compliance by conscientious passengers and full enforcement by flight attendants. As we know from the retail experience on the ground, employees sometimes have a tough time convincing customers to go along with a mask directive. (By contrast, a friend’s wife was told in a West Virginia souvenir shop to “take that mask off, nobody here’s sick.”)

Recently, while parked on a rural road and standing at the open hatch of my car, a man I’d never met walked up and started a conversation about trout fishing. He was not wearing a mask. Nor was I. (I was not expecting to encounter anyone at that relatively remote location.) I tried to be polite and listen to the fellow but found myself stepping around to the other side of the car to keep a safe distance. It was awkward. I probably should have asked the guy to step back or get a mask. But, since masks became part of a foolish American culture war, I have not yet worked out the formula for that important bit of social engineering — how to tell a stranger to back off without fear of offending.

Back to BWI: The elimination of the blocked middle seat is bound to trouble some travelers. Southwest prepared for that. “We recognize that some customers may have booked travel with the hope that our middle seat block would be extended beyond November,” Roach wrote in the blog. “Therefore, we’re … allowing refunds for all customers booked prior to October 23 for travel on December 1 or later.”

Still, with public health officials issuing dire warnings about surging infections this fall and winter, you have to wonder if packing people into cabins makes sense, even with all the air filtering and cleaning measures. Subsidizing the airlines to keep seats open would make more sense. Or, as the longtime emergency room nurse Donna Beall says: “Charge me a little extra for a ticket … don’t put my life at risk.”

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