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Dan Rodricks: Southwest will resume filling middle seats on flights. Is this a good idea?

Dan Rodricks: Southwest will resume filling middle seats on flights. Is this a good idea?

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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.

On recent flights between Baltimore and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 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.

“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 longtime 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, Florida, 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.

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.

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.”

Dan Rodricks is a long-time columnist for The Baltimore Sun.

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