Southwest Flight Experience Right Now
Over the past weekend, I was able to do my first flying since February on a round-trip between Phoenix and Atlanta, with stops/connections along the way in Las Vegas and New Orleans. Being savvy, I knew in advance what to expect, and when to expect it, and came prepared for the trip.
Phoenix Airport Experience
Let’s start at Phoenix/Sky Harbor. Masks are required for all people transiting or deplaning at PHX – and have been since 1 June 2020; it is now mandatory masking statewide for Arizona. As I use Pre Check for TSA, the line was fast; even so, the standard lines were much shorter than they were last year at this time for general TSA clearance. Contact is minimal (my ID only) and I was asked to pull my mask down for a second for visual clearance of my ID. Total time from start to finish was under 3 minutes.
At the boarding gate I found no real changes to the seating or layout – other than plexiglass and plastic shields have been installed at the counters and the gate podiums. Many people were obeying the social distancing policies, however even with frequent announcements to wear your masks, there was almost a level of nonchalance towards the mask rule. This would change RAPIDLY on the plane.
Southwest Boarding Experience
Boarding was done in the traditional Southwest manner, though with groups of 10 instead of 30 being done and only one side of the marker columns being used. Southwest does not seat people in middle seats, with the planes capped at 66% capacity (93 seats on the 700, 115 on the -800). As I preboard (I’m handicapped and need a little time to get down the jetway to avoid falls) we were boarded first and onto the plane.
The first thing you notice is that despite the masks, every single crewmember was over-the-top friendly – and smiling eyes replaced the normal smiling faces. I found that in many cases, this was the norm at every station in the Southwest system I crossed over six days. Our 737-824 was boarded VERY quickly… until the Lead Flight Attendant noticed two passengers who were disputing the mask wearing policy.
Drama Over Southwest’s Mask Rule
As we prepared to push back from the gate, two female passengers opposite my row decided they didn’t need it. (In fact, they’d not been wearing a mask in the gate area either). When asked to put their masks on, both looked up and gave a level of attitude towards the crew member – including the line “We don’t need them. We refuse to wear them. You can’t make us.” The Flight Attendant did not budge, being quite persistent in her efforts and polite at the same time.
“Folks, either put your masks on, our we will get the station manager to escort you off the aircraft.”
The two persisted in their disobedience to Southwest’s policy over masks. “Oh, we don’t have any!” – given with a look of glaring pride.
“Well, let me give you two complimentary Southwest Airlines Masks!”
Kudos to Southwest Airlines for upholding their policy for the safety of their passengers.
The Southwest Flight Experience
Onto the flight: What you first notice is that the only thing in the seat back pockets are the safety card and a sick sack. The magazine, IFE instructions, beverage & snack menus are all gone for the time being. They are available via the Southwest Wifi portal on your mobile devices, and on the Southwest.Com website. The aircraft smells different – the use of disinfectants and cleaning is readily apparent throughout, a sign they are keeping up with their promises of cleaning and wiping down after every flight. Upon final boarding and doors closing, the crew explain – and apologize for – the ‘slimline’ inflight service: A cup of ice water & a package of Chex Mix as the snack.
They APOLOGIZED for giving us good service! Yes, it’s not the normal cola & pretzels, but it is still better than what I’ve been reading at other carriers in the current junction.
Stopover in Vegas & On To Atlanta
40 minutes later we are at Las Vegas/McCarran, and I took a few minutes to observe the going-on around the terminal. Mask usage was around 60-70 percent, and they have removed seating from the gate areas as well as de-activating every other slot machine in the terminal. (Yes, I’m a slot-jockey & gamer… and McCarran earned 40.00 from me during my layover!) Boarding was again swift and with 100% compliance on masks, we were on our way to Atlanta/Hartsfield.
The inflight service again was the same on the first leg, but the crew did come around frequently with ice water as needed. Southwest is trying to make this experience as good as they can given the handicapping they’re under, and I have nothing but praise for every crew member I encountered throughout the trip with the skills they are well known for.
The return trip had me flying ATL-MSY-PHX, and my first trip through the new Armstrong Terminal at New Orleans.
How Are Things in Atlanta?
At ATL, you notice that people aren’t as careful with wearing masks or social distancing in the terminals. While Southwest has carefully lined out areas of where to go, it was a mess; even with staff trying to space people out, people were still huddling in masses together. TSA was doing their best to control the traffic flow and did so relatively well. The Airport Train was another sloppier point – that I blame more on the people not the trains which were well marked for safe distancing.
Upon arriving in the C concourse, several things seemed off, including the complete walled off of the C-north gates (23-58) with a semi-permanent wall. In addition, the central hub of the C concourse looked less like an airport, and more like a dead mall. The same could be said of the concourse shopping & dining. None of which was more alarming than seeing the Varsity closed. ATL was doing an OK job at separating out people and reducing seating in the terminal areas. Again, boarding was quick, onto a plane that was immaculately clean (No Cheerios in the seats!) and after 15 minutes we were on our way to New Orleans.
It should be noted: Even the flight crews participate in social distancing where possible. To this end, the first row of seats on the right side of the aircraft are blocked off. During takeoff & landing, the aisle seat is now used as a Flight Attendant seat. The entire row is now blocked for crew use.
Checking Out New Orleans’ New Terminal
New Orleans Armstrong is one of the most stunning terminals I’ve ever seen. Compared to the old Moisant terminal, it is light years ahead of the one it replaces, and certainly cleaner and brighter. As with most terminals, this one too had markers for separation, but only about 1/2 of the passengers were making use of this. Bathrooms had been retrofitted with automated toilet seats and additional sanitation supplies, along with copious amounts of hand sterilizer. Well done MSY!
The final leg took me back to PHX, and again Southwest was abiding by their policy of cleaning frequently. The aircraft I’d arrived into MSY on would be the one I flew out on – nearly 90 minutes later. Why? Cleaning and sterilization prior to the next flight legs (MSY-PHX-SFO). I returned to the seat I’d boarded in, and found that it too was completely clean & wiped down. Frequent announcements by the crew that the middle seats stay open was followed by physical separation by the crew to keep this policy enforced.
The next sounds I heard after boarding were the sounds of our airplane rolling out on the runway at PHX, indeed, I’d slept the entire flight.
Southwest Flight Experience Right Now – Bottom Line
Overall, Southwest is doing a tremendous job at keeping people safe & comfortable in this temporary era of great inconvienience. Everything done was to CDC specifications and beyond, and the always pleasing Southwest team members went above and beyond to try and make us feel welcome.
Was it perfect? No, not at all; we as passengers & travelers need to do more to make everything safe for all people flying. This can easily be done with some consideration for other people – and by wearing a mask when in public.