Trip Report: Flying Southwest Airlines During COVID-19

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A passenger refusing to wear a mask, a quick inflight service, and timely boarding makes for a good summary of my Southwest flight from Charlotte to Baltimore. The airline, known for its free checked bags and friendly service, provided a pleasant experience from A to B during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although, there was something to be desired from the airline enforcing policies.

Southwest Airlines 737-700
It was an eventful experience on this Southwest journey, Photo: Southwest Airlines

Booking

Booking the flight was quick and easy. I booked using the Southwest Airlines website and chose the “Wanna Get Away” fare. This was the cheapest fare at Southwest and came with the fewest perks. This fare comes with no change fees and reusable funds in case of cancellation.

Just above this is the “Anytime” fare, which is refundable, has free changes, and allows for same-day changes and standby. The “Business Select,” usually the most expensive ticket, has all the benefits of the “Anytime” fare along with priority boarding A1-A15, expedited Fly By security and check-in lane access, and a complimentary premium drink. All of these fares come with two free checked bags up to 50 pounds.

Loyalty program

Southwest has its own loyalty program, “Rapid Rewards,” which enables customers to earn points based on the fare purchased. Wanna Get Away fares earn six points per dollar, Anytime fares earn ten points per dollar, and Business Select fares are 12 points per dollar.

Southwest 737
Southwest’s frequent flier program is called Rapid Rewards. Getty Images

The program also offers status. There are two tiers “A-List” and “A-List Preferred.” To get A-List status, you have to take 25 one-way flights or earn 35,000 Tier-Qualifying points. After this, you earn 25% more points, priority boarding, standby priority, get access to Fly By lanes, and a dedicated customer phone line. A-List Preferred fliers get a 100% bonus on earning miles with all the other benefits of A-List members in addition to free inflight Wi-Fi. To earn A-List preferred status, you must take 50 one-way flights or else earn 70,000 Tier Qualifying Points.

Very frequent Southwest fliers can earn the coveted “Companion Pass.” Passengers who fly 100 qualifying one-way flights or earn 125,000 qualifying points in a calendar year earn a Companion Pass that lets one person fly with you free of charge. However, you have to pay taxes and fees.

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Southwest interior
Getting A-List Preferred status means seeing the Southwest heart a lot. Photo: Jay Singh/Simple Flying

The Charlotte experience

On the ground in Charlotte-Douglas International Airport (CLT), Southwest has a small presence at the massive American Airlines hub. Checking my bag was quick and easy and, within ten minutes of arriving at the airport, I was in the security line. Do note, however, that if you have a CLEAR membership, you won’t get to use it at CLT since it isn’t set up there yet. There are, however, TSA PreCheck lanes.

Southwest passengers do not receive lounge access. If you have a qualifying American Express card, you can enter the American Express Centurion Lounge located at CLT. However, this lounge is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Out of CLT, Southwest flies out of the A gates, which is a bit of a hike from security, but a nicely-done area with a few options for dining and shopping. After the inbound arrival, there was a 20-minute gap before boarding started.

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Boarding

Southwest Airlines does not have pre-assigned seating. Instead, the airline has an open seating policy where, when it is your turn to board, you may board and choose any available seat. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the airline has capped aircraft to leave middle seats and one set of three seats up front open for a flight attendant.

Passengers are assigned a boarding group or number. A1-15 are the first to get onboard. You receive your boarding group when you check-in for your flight. You can purchase early check-in for your ticket, which can get you a better boarding group. Or, at the airport, you can upgrade your boarding position at the gate into A1-15, starting at $30. Certain credit card holders can get this upgrade cost reimbursed.

Due to the pandemic, Southwest has modified its boarding process to allow ten people to board at a time.

N295WN
N295WN, the aircraft I flew on to Baltimore. Photo: Tomas Del Coro via Flickr

Seating

Southwest is an all-737 airline. All of its planes are in an all-economy configuration in a 3-3 setup. Middle seats are currently blocked through October to give passengers more room to spread out. In addition, up front, Southwest has blocked a set of three seats to provide flight attendants more room, so they are not sitting close to each other in the galley.

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SW Interior
Southwest’s 737s are in an all-economy configuration. Photo: Jay Singh/Simple Flying

The legroom onboard Southwest is pretty standard. The 737-700 we flew on was outfitted with 143 seats. The seat pitch was about 31 inches– comparable to a number of other domestic US airlines.

Legroom SW 737
Legroom was similar to other airlines. Photo: Jay Singh/Simple Flying

Amenities

Onboard Southwest’s planes that are equipped with Wi-Fi, all passengers can connect to receive on-demand complimentary entertainment and free messaging using iMessage and WhatsApp. Bring your own device and charge it up ahead of time. There were no power outlets onboard the aircraft. It might, however, be something Southwest could look into adding in the future to remain competitive.

Seatback
No IFE or power outlets on Southwest. Photo: Jay Singh/Simple Flying

If you want complete internet access to use your email, post on social media, etc., then you can purchase it onboard for $8. Internet access lasts all day on Southwest’s Wi-Fi-equipped flights.

Plane wifi southwest
Our plane was equipped with Wi-Fi. Photo: Jay Singh/Simple Flying

Food and beverage

Southwest minimized its inflight services before starting to bring it back. On this flight, which was about one hour in length, the flight attendants provided a service that consisted of a cup of water and a snack mix. It was more than enough for a flight of this length. All other service is temporarily suspended. Flight attendants walked through the aisle twice to provide the service.

Water and a snack mix
Water and a snack mix. Photo: Jay Singh/Simple Flying

Arrival

We arrived on-time into Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI), and it was a short walk to baggage claim. I had taken advantage of the airline’s free checked baggage policy and, within about twenty minutes after stepping off the plane, I had my luggage and was on my way to catch my ride.

PPE VEnding
A PPE vending machine in the baggage claim area at BWI. Photo: Jay Singh/Simple Flying

A passenger refused to wear a mask

Right before we departed, a young woman boarded the aircraft and refused to wear a face covering when prompted by the flight attendant. When asked about the mask, she stated she had a medical exemption and had flown on Southwest not too long before with no issue.

The flight attendant and ground crew asked for medical documentation, which she did not have. They eventually let her on board, over the objections of several passengers, and seated her towards the back.

Though it did not delay the departure of the flight, there were plenty of people who expressed concern over the decision to let her on board the aircraft. Southwest’s policy on its website explicitly states that customers must wear a mask to board the plane unless a passenger has an underlying medical condition.

There is, however, no further description of what an underlying medical condition would be, nor how a passenger would get one. Based on this incident, Southwest probably has left a few big loopholes in its policies.

Have you flown Southwest during the pandemic? What was your experience like? Let us know in the comments!

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