[Photo courtesy of Southwest Airlines]
Southwest Airlines Safe Travel Info
What's it like to fly Southwest Airlines right now?
I recently flew Southwest Airlines from Fort Myers (RSW) to Chicago (MDW). This review summarizes my experience and observations about Southwest’s social distancing, cleanliness, disinfection, and safety protocols both on board and at the Fort Myers and Chicago Midway airports.
This was my first time flying Southwest since the start of the the pandemic. While I had heard a great deal about the airline’s cleanliness and seat blocking / social distancing standards, certain aspects of the trip met or exceeded my expectations while other areas were underwhelming.
With respect to Southwest’s check-in staff, I did not check bags or print boarding passes at the airport so I had no interaction with Southwest employees prior to clearing security.
Security crowds were light and the experience was fast: TSA PreCheck was open on a Friday afternoon (a relief as RSW used to be notorious for unpredictably closing PreCheck). I did manage to get flagged for additional screening of my carry-on luggage after walking through the metal detector, which was a minor inconvenience but only took a couple of minutes.
Southwest’s gate staff at RSW were extremely professional, communicative, and clear in announcing boarding procedures and explaining Southwest’s mask-wearing requirements.
The employees did a good job politely ensuring all passengers followed boarding guidelines, though admittedly it was a relatively light flight (less than 50% full).
Southwest’s jet bridge in Fort Myers had social distancing decals on the floor, but no other signage or protocols to ensure social distancing. Passengers still began to crowd at the entrance to the aircraft where there’s always a bottleneck, but several proactive passengers stood back until there was a safe distance to enter the plane.
In contrast, the jet bridge we exited the plane from in Chicago had no social distancing signage whatsoever. I’m not sure how effective these signs are in practice, but as one of Southwest’s main hubs, I was a little surprised to see no signs in place at all on our jet bridge at Midway.
Social Distancing / On Board Experience
Southwest blocked middle seats until November 30, but has now returned to selling full flights. After Thanksgiving and Christmas, holiday travel figures are higher than they were earlier in 2020, but still substantially lower than recent years. If you’re flying Southwest in 2021 prior to the Covid-19 vaccines’ broad roll out, Safe Travel Guide encourages booking carefully during off-peak times as much as possible.
Southwest did a great deal to communicate its cleaning and disinfection practices at the start of the pandemic, and we noticed a placard just inside the aircraft explaining the airline’s enhanced commitment to disinfecting its planes.
I had heard about the airline’s electrostatic spraying, and recall Southwest having a policy to clean and wipe down high-contact surfaces after every flight.
Immediately upon choosing a seat, I noticed that the seats themselves were almost certainly not cleaned or wiped down after the previous flight. There were cookie crumbs all over the middle seat beside me, and there was a strange oily substance on the seat back directly in front of me.
I saw our aircraft arrive and it was turned — cleaned and prepared for the next set of passengers — in approximately 20 minutes. Short turn times are not uncommon for Southwest, but any cleaning processes which I expected to be substantially enhanced from pre-pandemic times weren’t noticeable to passengers.
I had also heard about hand sanitizing wipes being available on board. I didn’t ask for them, but they weren’t offered or visibly available on the aircraft.
The flight itself was smooth. Drink and snack service has been simplified to cups of water and pre-packaged snacks offered once or twice. Flight attendants handed water and snacks out with gloves.
Southwest also communicated that bandanas and scarves were not sufficient face coverings and offered proper masks to anyone requiring one. Everyone on board appeared to comply with the face covering policy throughout the flight.
Airports & Masks
Despite an ongoing debate about the effectiveness of airlines blocking seats for social distancing, travel experts seem to think that traveling on the airplane itself is less risky than the environment at airports (e.g., security, restaurants, boarding, taxi lines, etc.).
My security experience was fine, but the in-terminal restaurants at both RSW and MDW were crowded with no one wearing masks as, understandably, people were eating and drinking.
The reality at both airports is that the restaurants are right in the middle of the main terminal walking area so you’ll be in and around these for at least a short time as you proceed to your gate. With hundreds of people in the Southwest terminal at Midway, this seems like it could be a risk factor if the holiday travel season becomes even more crowded.
Aside from the airport restaurants, I observed that on average, passengers in Chicago Midway were more compliant with wearing masks in the terminal than those in Fort Myers. To be fair, I spent less time in the Midway terminal, but there were at least a dozen people in Fort Myers just walking around and into / out of the restrooms without masks. In Chicago, everyone seemed to be masked except in the airport restaurants.
All in all, it was less stressful than expected though not nearly as enjoyable as a flight pre-pandemic. In my view, Southwest did a reasonably good job with the exception of the perceived onboard cleanliness.
Safe Travel Summary
Floor decals and signage encourage social distancing at Southwest gates
Ticket counters, gates, and baggage claim areas cleaned throughout the day
All employees and customers must wear face masks on board. Southwest provides extras if you forget.
Electrostatic spraying of every aircraft surface shields surfaces from viruses for 30 days
Updated boarding in groups of 10 on only one side of boarding poles for social distancing
Disinfects high-touch surfaces on aircraft like lavatories, tray tables, arm rests, and seatbelts with Sani-Cide EX3, a disinfectant that kills viruses and bacteria
After November 30, middle seats no longer blocked for social distancing
Hand sanitizer wipes available on board
Have you flown Southwest Airlines recently?
Safe Travel Guide features photos and reviews of flights. Submit yours and we’ll credit you if we publish them.