Comprehensive Guide to Airlines’ Pandemic Adaptations: Southwest Airlines COVID-19 Response

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Updated March 28, 2021

This article is the fifth post of a six-part series as we look at how each of the six biggest U.S. airline groups are responding and handling multiple aspects of the current travel climate caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Previous posts have looked at how Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines and JetBlue Airways have adapted during this unprecedented drop in demand for air travel. This article will break down what Southwest Airlines COVID response continues to be, in terms of Elite status, cancellation/change policy, lounges, credit cards, cleaning procedures, mask policies, CARES Act and any other changes.

Elite Status:

Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Rewards members that are currently A-List or A-List Preferred will be receiving an extension of their status through the end of 2021. Southwest has rewarded all Rapid Rewards members with “15,000 tier qualifying points and 10 flight credits toward A-List and A-List Preferred status, and 25,000 Companion Pass qualifying points and 25 flight credits toward Companion Pass status.” I can verify that Southwest did apply these points and flight credits. I have never flown with Southwest Airlines but I do have a Rapid Rewards account and got rewarded the above points. Members who earned Companion Pass benefits that were originally extended through June 30, 2021 will now be valid through Dec. 31, 2021 (this only applies to pass holders that got the original extension through June 30, 2021).

In regard to travel funds that were issued or set to expire from March 1 to September 7, 2020, will now be good until September 7, 2022.

Cancellation and Change Policy:

For Southwest Airlines there is actually very little change in this area as compared to their standard policy. The airline does not charge cancellation/change fees for any flight as long as the No Show Policy is followed. Both nonrefundable and refundable tickets that are canceled can have the amount applied to future travel. For this to be valid, the traveler must initiate the cancellation at least 10 minutes prior to the flight’s scheduled departure time. Although, the customer may be responsible for any difference in fare when trying to rebook a flight. 

Lounges:

Since Southwest Airlines is a low-cost carrier, it does not operate its own passenger lounges.

Credit Cards:

Rapid Rewards Credit Cardholders who have the Rapid Rewards Premier, Priority, Premier Business and/or Performance Cards have the chance to earn 1,500 Tier-Qualifying points towards A-List or A-List Preferred status for every $10,000 spent using the card in 2021. There are no limits to how many points can be earned. This promotion starts on the first day of your billing cycle that ends in January 2021 and continues through the last billing cycle in December 2021.

Cleaning Protocols:

Southwest has partnered with Stanford University School of Medicine, Harvard University School of Public Health, The International Air Transport Association (IATA), Boeing and the U.S. Department of Defense’s U.S. Transportation Command to develop and implement the following safety and cleaning protocols.

Southwest Airlines has stated that it has started using a hospital-grade disinfectant (Sani-Cide EX3) that is approved by the EPA throughout the entire aircraft cabin including: the lavatories, portions of the flight deck and other high touchpoint areas (tray tables, armrests, seatbelts, windows, air vents and buttons). These high-touch points are cleaned prior to each flight. Customers may also request sanitizing wipes onboard the aircraft from a flight attendant. The company states that in addition to its routine cleaning of each airplane between flights, it spends at least an additional six hours of cleaning each aircraft per night. Each plane also uses HEPA filtration systems, which are used in the hospital setting, and air inside the cabin is completely circulated every three minutes.

In April 2020, the company began the use of “electrostatic disinfectant and anti-microbial spray” that is applied to every interior cabin surface that can eliminate viruses and form a 30 day protective coating. The mist that is created by this system is meant to coat all surfaces, even those that are unreachable when cleaning by hand. According to the manufacturer and Southwest, this mist creates a coating with a force that is 75 times more powerful than gravity!

Inside airports, the airline states that it will be increasing the frequency of cleaning all of its leased spaces including baggage claim areas, ticketing counters, and gate areas. Also, to encourage distance, the company is installing plexiglas barriers at ticket counters and gate desks to protect both passengers and employees. Additionally, signs will be placed (floor markers and other signage) to encourage appropriate social distancing. Hand sanitizer will be available at check-in kiosks, ticketing counters and gate desks.

Masks and Other PPE:

As of July 27, Southwest made it mandatory for all customers and employees to wear a mask or face covering over both nose and mouth while in the airport and onboard the aircraft. The only exemption to this rule is for children under two years of age. The company states that they will deny air travel to any individual that cannot abide by this rule. The airline explains that it is understandable if masks are temporarily removed to eat or drink but should be put back on immediately after completion. Southwest encourages passengers to bring their own face coverings to use while traveling but will provide a mask to travelers upon request.

Additionally, the carrier requires that masks cover both nose and mouth, do not have holes or vents/valves, cannot be made of mesh or lace, have to be able to be secured under the chin (so no bandanas) and face shields can be worn in addition to a face mask but not in place of a mask.

CARES Act:

The CARES Act is a program that has offered a total of $25 billion to the airline industry and this portion of the act is being administered by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. This program helps to cover the payrolls of these airlines during this time of dramatically decreased demand. 

Southwest Airlines announced on April 14, that they had reached an agreement on the amount of support that the company would receive as part of this program. The company expects to receive $3.2 billion in support, with $2.3 billion in a grant for payroll support and about $1 billion in a low-interest loan with a 10-year term. The payroll support was determined to be about 76% of the airline’s wage expenses from the second and third quarters of 2019.

As part of the deal, the airline did have to provide 2.6 million warrants (the right to purchase that many Southwest shares) to the U.S. Department of the Treasury at $36.47 per share. One more stipulation was that the company agreed to no involuntary furloughs, or reduction in employee benefits (to include pay) through September 2020, no share buybacks nor dividend payouts through September 30, 2021 and limits on the compensation that executives receive through March 24, 2022.

Southwest CEO, Gary Kelly announced in late December 2020 that the extension of the Payroll Support Program (PSP) will provide support for the airline through March 31, 2021. The carrier should be able to recall furloughed employees with the aid provided. With this aid and other cost reducing measures implemented by the airline it is anticipated that there will be no need for furloughs nor pay cuts for the 2021 calendar year. The company will receive $1.7 billion in total support with $488 million in the form of a low interest loan. In exchange the airline must provide 48.8 million warrants for common stock to the Treasury Department at a price of $46.28 per warrant.

Other Changes:

  1. Southwest is encouraging passengers to bring and utilize their own hand sanitizer products as long as they follow TSA container guidelines, do not contain bleach products and they cannot be the aerosol kind of sanitizer.
  2. The airline is encouraging travelers that feel ill or have COVID-19 symptoms to stay home and forego traveling until it is safe to do so.
  3. The company is restructuring how it boards aircraft. It is going to board planes in groups of ten passengers at a time and they will board sequentially by position. 
  4. Encouraging the use of mobile boarding passes to reduce the amount of touchpoints.
  5. Southwest announced in October 2020 that starting December 1, 2020 it would start selling all seats onboard aircraft in an effort to help increase revenue. If the flight that a passenger is booked on fills to the point where middle seats cannot be left open, the customer will receive a notification 2-3 days prior to departure with the option to change to a less full flight within 3 days of the original flight free of charge.
  6. Beverage and snack service has been temporarily suspended for flights less than 250 miles but the company encourages travelers to bring their own food and drink items aboard (drinks must be purchased after security). Water and snacks are being safely served for flights over 250 miles.
  7. Customers are required to complete a Health Declaration where they confirm that they are symptom free and have not had exposure to anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 within 14 days of travel as well as acknowledge the mask requirement policy.
photo credit: yooperann Southwest Terminal via photopin (license)

Conclusion of Southwest Airlines COVID-19 Response:

As can be seen, the response from Southwest is pretty standard when compared to the rest of the airline industry. The company actually did not have to do much in terms of changing its cancellation policy but I do feel like it gave the airline some good PR for this feature. It also does not have any lounges of its own, so that means one less area that the airline has to focus on during this time. One negative aspect that stuck out to me was that the company is reducing the number of passengers on each flight to allow for middle seats to remain open but not directly blocking them from being chosen during seat selection.  

The Southwest website, Newsroom page and the U.S. Department of the Treasury were the sources for the information above. 

Alaska Airlines Response

American Airlines Response

Delta Airlines Response

JetBlue Airways Response

United Airlines Response

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