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Clearing the storms on arrival into Orlando (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ian McMurtry)

Masked Heart: A Southwest Flight Review During COVID-19

Seeing that restrictions on COVID-19 have slowly eased by some states in the United States and air travel is progressing towards normalcy slowly, demand for flying is returning. However, the airline experience is not what it used to be and experiences change based on the airline. While writers to other sites such as Tom Pallini have covered Delta and American, Southwest should also be put to the test. To compare, I have also done two other Southwest experiences both on the same route and a different route to see how the previously branded Symbol of Freedom is handling these restricting times for air travel.

Taking me to Daytona to tour apartments and sign paperwork before graduate school begins in August, my experience on Southwest Airlines would be via Southwest Flight WN208, a nonstop flight between St. Louis-Lambert International Airport and Orlando International Airport. The departure time was originally set for 2:40 p.m. but an aircraft swap would mean that the departure would be delayed till 3:55 p.m.

Departure Airport – St. Louis Airport

Arrival at an empty St. Louis-Lambert International Airport meant that check-in and security were next to flawless. At the time of writing, St. Louis-Lambert International Airport does not follow strict mask-wearing policies and leaves travelers to decide if they want to wear the protective wear when in the terminal building. While most airlines and all St. Louis workers were wearing the mask, passengers were not so fearful with about half choosing to wear the mask in Terminal E that afternoon.

The terminal was sparsely populated and as a result, would see closed restaurants both before and after security to mirror this drop in demand. Of the airside Terminal E options, The Blue Note, a St. Louis Blues styled bar, a Burger King and the Great American Bagel Company were available for food. Lunch at The Blue Note exposed a limited food menu to just sandwiches and other small plate options to limit dishware. The Blues themed menus were also removed in favor of a typed-up list on a piece of paper.

After completing the late lunch, I walked to the reassigned jetbridge for flight WN208 at gate E12. By this point, the aircraft had arrived from Panama City, Florida and had begun deplaning as crowds began to gather. By 3:25 p.m. the aircraft had been disinfected and boarding had begun for the return to the Sunshine State.

Southwest Flight 208 (STL-MCO)

The plane for today’s flight ended up being N8608N, a Boeing 737-800. Delivered to the airline in 2013, the aircraft wore the revised livery that was unveiled in 2014 but maintained the previous iteration’s cabin interior. This included the heart with wings logo on the bulkheads and older, thicker seats.

Southwest 208 prepares for the journey to Orlando (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ian McMurtry)

Under current social distancing policies, Southwest’s traditional boarding groups of A, B and C lined up on either side of the numerically branded pillars cannot be done and would result in groups piling up on the jetbridge. As a result, a revised boarding system was implemented to allow people to board 10 persons at a time. The announcement of how the boarding system would work was also the moment the airline informed passengers that the mask policy would be enforced and those needing a mask can get one from the counter. The boarding group began with those needing special assistance, followed by A1 to A10, A11 through A20 and so on.

Boarding at A46, I made my way down the jetbridge and towards the Boeing 737-800. As was expected, the socially distanced boarding had done its job and eliminated crowds from stalling on the walkway. Much like other airlines, Southwest has also blocked middle seats on flights which further advanced the ability to speed up the boarding process. Taking seat 21A, I waited for the rest of my family to join me towards the rear of the plane as they would board in the latter A group or early B group.

In all, 70 passengers were using the 175 seat Boeing 737 on the trip to Central Florida. Because of the low crowds and the ground crew loading a few too many bags into the rear cargo hold, those passengers who sought refuge in the far back of the plane were told to come forward to correct the weight and balance issue that was caused by the bags. Despite loading in on time, the weight and balance rework would cause WN208 to push back an additional seven minutes late at 4:02 p.m.

Pushback and a quick taxi would see a slight pause before departure to allow for a United CRJ-550 and Southwest 737-700 to utilize simultaneous arrivals on runways 30L and 30R. Once the company had cleared the runway, our larger 737 variant was cleared to depart and utilized less than half of the 11,019-foot runway for departure. The aircraft would bank soon after takeoff to provide fantastic views of the Gateway to the West as we climbed to our cruising altitude.

Not long after departure the crew began moving to prepare the aircraft for a scaled-back beverage run but paused to tell passengers once again that their mask must be worn through the entirety of the flight. Despite multiple warnings, there were still passengers past this point who would take their mask off or leaving it hanging on the side of their face, either irritated with wearing it or not fearing the virus. Although these people did this throughout the flight, the plane continued on for Florida.

Beverage service began around 40 minutes into the flight as we cross Nashville at 39,000 feet. The Southwest crew offered a snack mix and Deja Blue water with a straw. The crew explained to passengers that they could take off their mask to eat but would need to reattach the facial cover once finished.

A limited beverage and snack is better than nothing (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ian McMurtry)

During this time the bathroom became a commonplace. The flight crew settled down after services were concluded and chatted in the final two vacant rows of the 737. The last major bit of action came south of Atlanta, where a man would move himself to row 28 to give his wiener dog more room to walk around outside its cage. That lasted about 10 minutes before the dog had an accident on the floor and despite its whines for help was forced back into the carrier.

Not often you get a mostly empty plane headed towards Orlando (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ian McMurtry)

After cleaning up from the light snack served on board and the dog accident at the rear of the plane, the plane crossed the state line into Florida and the captain would turn on the fasten seat belt sign due to afternoon storms in the area. Although a few bumps were encountered and a few storms were entered, the aircraft found space to avoid most of the towering thunderheads and maintained a course towards the ‘City Beautiful’.

After dancing with storms through northern Florida, Southwest 208 finally cleared the storms outside the town of Leesburg and around 10,000 feet. Now announcing that we were beginning the final descent into Orlando, we crossed 10,000 feet and began a left-handed turn to finalize our approach to Orlando’s airport. A right banked turn at 3,500 feet would set up the aircraft for a final approach to runway 17L. This would change halfway down final approach as 17R became available and would reduce unnecessary taxi time.

Wheels for WN208 would make contact with the ground at 6:56 p.m., marking the flight as one hour 56 minutes and reducing the delay to just 56 minutes behind schedule. Touching down on runway 17R revealed how COVID-19 has impacted travel to Central Florida. The evening international rush at Virgin Atlantic, British Airways, Lufthansa, and Canadian carriers was absent from Airside 4 as only an Emirates Boeing 777-300ER and Delta Boeing 757-200 huddled around the quiet terminal. Airsides 1 and 2 were still operating as per normal as JetBlue, Frontier and Southwest kept planes moving throughout the airport as the sun began to set on the Florida skyline.

Arrival Airport – Orlando International Airport

Deplaning was as per normal and Orlando International Airport’s airside experience hasn’t changed much. Restaurants in the main food court like Chipotle, McDonald’s, and Jersey Mike’s are still open. These restaurants do not strictly enforce social distancing outside of signage and even McDonald’s lets customers still use the soda fountains. Much like St. Louis, Orlando does not enforce a mask-wearing policy. However, unlike St. Louis, the major of passengers ignored the encouragement to wear masks in the current conditions.

Taking the AirTrain to the landside terminal would once again remind passengers of the COVID-19 conditions around them. The AirTrain’s introduction message with Orlando’s Mayor Buddy Dyer has been altered to include a message about the coronavirus and watching Orlando recover from the current market. Further signs of the times would be seen directly off the train, where the often complained about and lengthy security line at Orlando was down to just a single passenger.

The main lobby would not be much better, echoing the scene played out across America. Gift shops for Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld would be closed up and airline check-in counters and signage still illuminated pre-March issues. And while the names for Icelandair, Bahamasair, and Lufthansa will likely be needed again, the Thomas Cook signage will not.

Signage directs passengers to airlines that haven’t appeared in Central Florida for months (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ian McMurtry)

Taking the escalator downstairs, I found that the bags had already arrived on the carousel. That allowed me to accelerate the time needed to get down the additional floor to rental cars. Darkened signs for Disney’s Magical Express and Virgin Holidays showed how far Orlando still needs to go to return to normal. But despite the very quiet corporate shuttle drop off, getting a rental car and across the street to the garage was smooth.

The return flight the following Sunday would be a similar experience with little changes to note. The only major change was an attempt to use the wifi on the two-and-a-half-hour flight. For $8 I was able to acquire all day wifi access and found both utilizing FlightRadar24 and streaming the League of Legends European Championship to be flawless, something I haven’t been able to do before due to previous experiences being laggy with streaming real-time content. Also of note, the return leg was nearly full when you take into account the blocking of middle seats, with Southwest Flight 207 utilizing 115 of the 176 seats on board.

Conclusion

I found Southwest’s experience as close to normal as they can create. However, it is hard to find normalcy in the current market when you are wearing a mask on a less than half-empty plane headed to Florida over summer. But I do still appreciate Southwest attempting to keep the beverage service going even if it is just water and crackers.

But I do see an issue with the mask policy. The inability to force passengers to wear masks is a major issue that all airlines have to face. Everyone knows a plane won’t be diverted because of a mask not being worn so they just ignore it. From what I saw in Florida and Missouri, this issue is being more commonly seen amongst older passengers who find the mask irritating or restricting. Also by flying to a vacation destination I was able to note that not all families are willing to forgo their summer trips in the current scene, with plenty of foam boards and sunburns filling the baggage carousels and concourses of Orlando.

What impact travel will have on the longevity of COVID-19 will be seen. Those who choose to travel can only do the best to protect themselves and follow airline policy to the best of their ability but don’t expect everyone to see it as serious as you do. Southwest’s St. Louis schedule will be back at over 60% of its July 2019 route map which means that people are itching to fly again and airlines must be up to the task of making sure that March does not repeat itself again for its own sake

Ian McMurtry
Ian McMurtry
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