My experience flying Southwest during the pandemic

With COVID-19 cases and fatalities unfortunately reaching daily record highs, it's been difficult for many to celebrate during the holidays, much less take to the skies.  I was recently offered a job position near Baltimore, so I decided to take the risk and embark on the 5 1/2 nonstop plane ride from Oakland to Baltimore on Southwest to decide if I'd want to spend my next few years there.


Determining plane capacity

During the pandemic, SWA flies one daily nonstop between OAK-BWI on a narrow-body B737.  Another option for me would be to fly on United SFO-IAD nonstop, though that would entail substantially more driving on both ends of the journey.  Unlike most carriers which display seat maps, Southwest is all unassigned seating so there's no way to determine the seat map capacity online or through a paid premium subscription like Expert Flyer.  Originally, I wanted to book for Thursday-Sunday, so I called SWA to see if they could disclose capacity.  The agent informed me that although she didn't know the approximate capacity, she could at least disclose if planes are <67% full, meaning that the middle seat would likely be open.  She said that Thursday and Friday departure looked good (<67%), but Sunday return was >67%.  So I asked her about Monday and Tuesday return, which she said were both <67% full.

Since I didn't want to get onto a flight and have to sit next to someone, I decided to go with Thursday-Monday.  Before booking, I called SWA again on Wednesday (the day before my scheduled departure) to ensure that the flights were still relatively empty.  This agent was able disclose actual approximate load capacity.  She informed me that Thursday's departure was about 50% full, and Friday at 40% full.  For the return, Sunday was 90% full, Monday was 60% full, and Tuesday was 50% full.  Wanting the emptiest planes, I then decided to book Friday-Tuesday.


OAK airport

Since my flight was departing Oakland Airport at 7:25 am, I got to the airport just after 6 am.  Sure enough, the entire terminal was empty.  At the TSA security check point, the TSA agent checking your ID and boarding pass is encapsulated in plastic shielding, and there are plastic barriers separating passengers from the agents working the X-rays.

In addition, social distancing stickers are placed on the ground.  Masks are required throughout the entire airport, and the TSA agent will ask you to remove the mask for a few seconds to verify that the picture on you match the picture on your ID.


Boarding on Southwest

In order to maintain social distancing, Southwest allows a maximum of 10 passengers to board per group.  Although I had booked the flight literally the evening before departure, I was assigned boarding number A59.  Unless you pay up for priority boarding, Southwest assigns your boarding number based on the time of check-in, which begins 24 hours before departure.  Normally, checking in the evening before a morning flight means that you'll be in the C boarding group.  But seeing how this flight was 40% full, even last minute bookings would be assigned the A group.  Southwest's B737-800 can seat up to 175 passengers, so I was expecting around 70 passengers on the flight.


Upon boarding, I noticed that one of the emergency exit rows was completely empty, so I took that row all to myself.  All the solo passengers had entire rows to themselves, with a number of empty rows as well in the back of the plane.  The plane has 31 rows x2 for a total of 62, so it wasn't surprising based on the fact that there were less than 70 passengers on the flight.  The row in front of me was also empty.


In-Flight

Southwest does a 6-hour deep clean of all their planes overnight with electrostatic disinfectant and an anti-microbial spray.  In between flights, they clean onboard lavatories and tray tables with a broad-spectrum disinfectant.  Since my flight was the first one taking off for the day, it had the 6-hour overnight comprehensive deep clean.  Nonetheless, I brought my own disinfecting wipes and wiped down my entire row of seats, tray tables, seat behinds, and window area to play it safe.


Southwest has free on-demand TV and entertainment (movies, shows, and music) when you connect your personal device to their in-flight network.  Unfortunately, the in-flight WiFi wasn't working, which means that on-demand TV also wouldn't work.  For the entirety of the flight, I noticed that passengers rarely stood up even when the seat belt sign was off, which to me was a sign of everyone playing it safe and social distancing.  The flight attendants enforced the face covering requirement vigorously.  If they see you with your mask not covering your nose, they'll immediately point it out and enforce it.  In fact, when the passenger seat belt sign was lit, I noticed that the flight attendants paid more attention to your face covering placement than your seat belts.  This made sense as the biggest in-flight danger would be contracting COVID-19 and not smashing your head against the ceiling due to unexpected and extremely rare severe turbulence.

The only time you're allowed to remove your face covering is in the act of drinking or eating.  Southwest had abbreviated beverage and snack service, only passing out cups of waters.  I downed my water in a couple of gulps and immediately recovered my face as I was scared of having my mask off for even mere seconds.  I laid down on my row and rested for the majority of the 6-hour flight.


Deplaning

Unfortunately, Southwest doesn't have a "10 person at a time" deplaning rule.  Instead, everyone just gets up as they normally do when deplaning and line up at the aisle.  This made social distancing impossible, though it was at least encouraging to hear that the plane's air distribution system was still running even when parked.  Southwest claims that their planes are able to perform a full exchange of fresh outdoor air every 2-3 minutes with HEPA (High-efficiency particulate air) onboard that removes 99.97% of airborne particles.  This technology is similar to hospitals, and it just happens that planes are also built this way since they need to have negative cabin pressure when flying at high altitudes.  After deplaning, I immediately headed to Baltimore Airport's ground transit area to get onto the car rental shuttle.


Bottom line

Flying is a whole different experience now due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Flights and airports are empty, in-flight services are very limited, and masks are required from airport to airport.  Since I had an entire row to myself, I was for the most part allowed to social distance except from the lone passenger sitting in the row behind me.  But since masks are required and the HEPA filters exchange every 2-3 minutes, I generally did not feel at-risk during the 6-hour flight.  I would even go as far to say that flying on an emptier plane where you get the entire row to yourself would be safer than going to the supermarket, which definitely isn't equipped with negative pressure HVACs in the same way that planes are.  Would I fly again during the pandemic on an emptier plane?  Like going to the supermarket, only if I have to since the risk is still inherently there.  But did I feel safe during the flight?  For the most part, yes.

From all of us at Flying for Fitness, please stay healthy during this trying time.  We hope you enjoyed this post.  Please consider visiting one of our sponsors by clicking on the advertisements.  Our sponsors pay us for customer visits and help us to keep the lights on.  Thanks!



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