Forget the pretzels. And put away your credit card. Southwest Airlines is introducing what it calls “stringent” new measures in response to the COVID-19 crisis, including suspending the distribution of snacks and beverages in-flight.
“We are not serving snacks or beverages in-flight to limit personal contact,” says the low-cost carrier, whose cabin crew members usually serve up pretzels on shorter flights; and pretzels, cookies, crackers and Fritos on longer haul flights, plus soft drinks, water and coffee.
Now Southwest is recommending that customers eat before traveling. “You’ll want to be prepared to eat in advance or simply bring those items with you for your next flight,” says the airline in a video message to customers. That’s especially true for travelers preparing to fly longer-haul transcontinental routes on Southwest.
Like other US carriers, Southwest will soon require its passengers to wear face coverings or masks throughout their air travel journey, in alignment with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “If you forget your mask at home, one will be available for you,” assures the airline, whose policy goes into effect on 11 May.
There are lingering questions about the usefulness of wearing a mask only to pull it down or take it off to eat and drink on board. But it’s notable that Southwest is putting the onus on passengers to bring their own food and beverages, meaning the carrier is not actively providing a service that would provoke a passenger to remove their mask.
Reduced eating might also limit the need to visit the lavatory. In contrast, full-service carrier Delta is providing a modified food and beverage service to passengers amid the pandemic, saying that passengers are required to wear their masks except during meal service starting on 4 May.
Southwest has already removed most paper products from seatback pockets. So, don’t expect to see its usual buy-on-board drinks menu or indeed an inflight magazine.
Removing inflight magazines is part of a growing trend in industry in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Airlines are wise to remove these paper products from seat pockets, according to Laurent Safar, CEO of Adaptive Channel, which provides digital press content services to airlines, and admittedly has a vested interest in seeing paper publications go the way of the dodo bird.
“While most passengers assume the bathroom and seats would have the most germs, the truth shows that many surprising places – like the seat pocket, seatbelt, tray table and fan nozzle – actually have a great deal more bacteria, perhaps because the obviously dirtier places are cleaned/sanitized regularly by crew,” notes Safar. Adaptive points to a Canadian study, which showed that seat pockets are extremely dirty.
Since early March, Southwest has stepped up its cabin cleaning and disinfectant processes in response to COVID-19, including deep cleaning each plane from nose to tail each night. Starting in mid-May, a broad-spectrum disinfectant will be used to clean commonly used areas – onboard lavatories, tray tables, armrests, seat belts, flight attendant call buttons, and overhead bin handles – before every flight, says the airline. It is also ensuring that its airport gate areas, ticket counters and baggage claim areas are cleaned multiple times a day. And Plexiglas is being installed at ticketing and gate counters, as well as baggage service offices.
Southwest cabin crew will have extra sanitizing wipes on board for those who don’t have their own. And hand sanitizer is being made available at the airport.
The airline is also now urging customers to download their mobile boarding pass prior to arrival “to avoid exchanging paper with others”, and to arrive at the airport earlier to allow for new check-in and security processes. And it suggests that passengers maintain physical spacing at the airport and on board.
Southwest’s famous open seating policy is also being modified for the time being. Instead of boarding passengers in tranches of 60 (30 on each side of the boarding poles), it will board groups of ten at a time on only one side of the poles. Additionally, it is limiting the number of people on each flight to provide customers with more personal space – and physical distance – from each other, at least through June.
Though Southwest says there will be no need for the middle seat to be occupied, families and other customers who are traveling together can still choose to sit together. The first two to three rows of seats and the last two to three rows on the aircraft will be blocked, however.