From boarding assignments to pretzels: What to expect on your next Southwest Airlines flight
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For the first time since mid-March, the U.S. has passed that much-anticipated date when more than 1 million travelers flew in a single day.
That's still less than half the normal rate of daily flyers, but it's progress for an industry that was almost entirely shut down — even though many would-be travelers that still haven't packed their carry-on bag or printed a boarding pass since the pandemic took hold.
Each U.S. airline has taken its own distinct approach to flying in the age of the coronavirus, but Southwest Airlines has always had a unique way of doing things. With its coveted Companion Pass, lack of advance seat assignments, no bag fees for most checked or carry-on bags and no change fees, flying with Southwest has always felt special.
Those core elements haven't changed, but other aspects of flying Southwest have — all in the name of safety and distancing due to COVID-19. Here's what to expect if you plan to board a Southwest Airlines flight in the near future.
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Blocked middle seats — until December
Southwest Airlines doesn't assign seats, so saying middle seats are blocked isn't exactly the case (as TPG's Benet Wilson experienced firsthand). Until Dec. 1, 2020, however, Southwest is only booking flights to two-thirds capacity (about 67%), so middle seats can remain open.
You and your family or friends can still sit three across and fill the middle, if you wish. But, otherwise, you're almost guaranteed to have extra elbow room when flying Southwest until the calendar flips to December. After that, the airline can book flights to 100% capacity.
Related: These airlines are still blocking middle seats
As always, your boarding group is what determines when you can get on board and claim your seat(s) of choice. This may matter more than ever after Dec. 1. Families with kids ages 6 and younger (defined as up to two adults with children) can board during Family Boarding between the A and B groups. For other travelers, during a typical Southwest flight, you'll board according to your group (A through C) and boarding position (1 through 60).
You can purchase EarlyBird boarding and let Southwest claim your spot in the virtual boarding line 36 hours before departure. Otherwise, check in exactly 24 hours before departure for the earliest boarding spot. If available, you can also purchase A1 to A15 boarding places at the gate. The Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card includes four credits for these boarding positions each year.
Here are more tips for getting the best seats on Southwest Airlines.
Related: Southwest to stop blocking middle seats in December
Boarding 10 at a time
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Southwest boarded by groups A 1 to 30, followed by A 31 to 60; B 1 to 30, B 31 to 60; all the way through the C groups. Travelers would line up in a single-file row at the gate and board the plane (in numerical order) in groups of 30.
Now, Southwest Airlines boards in groups of 10 people at a time. This means you need to be at the gate listening and ready before boarding, but you won't be camping out at your spot in line until called.
Related: Best credit cards for flying Southwest Airlines
Masks required for everyone 2 and older
Southwest Airlines requires face masks for all customers 2 years of age and older. Other than being under 2 years old, there are no exemptions to Southwest's face mask mandate.
Face masks with exhaust valves, or those made of a material such as lace or mesh, are not permitted. Neck gaiters are allowed as long as they cover the nose and mouth and are secured under the chin. Face shields are allowed in addition to (but not instead of) face masks.
Related: Do kids have to wear face masks on planes?
Minimal onboard service
If you think you're going to need to drink or eat anything substantial on a Southwest flight, it's a good idea to come prepared.
Southwest is serving water and snack mix on flights of 250 miles or longer, but that's it. (Which, honestly, I think is smart: Here's why serving alcohol on a flight may not be the best plan right now.)
You can take down your mask while actively eating or drinking on Southwest, but the airline wants you to keep it quick. The Southwest website states: "We do acknowledge there may be times when a customer needs to briefly remove their face covering, for instance, to eat, drink or take medicine. However, we expect these instances to be very brief, and customers should put their face covering back on as soon as possible."
Related: What in-flight service to expect on your next flight
Southwest Airlines says it's using Sani-Cide EX3, a broad-spectrum disinfectant, to clean onboard lavatories and tray tables before every flight. Additionally, the airline claims it's deep cleaning planes from nose to tail for six to seven hours each every night.
In fact, some travelers may choose to book the first flight of the day for precisely that reason. TPG's senior credit cards editor, Benet Wilson, is a regular Southwest flyer. She said when she took her first Southwest flight during the pandemic in late August, she "chose the earliest nonstop flight" because she knows the airline "keeps its last flights [from] the previous night parked at the gate."
"I also knew the plane would be cleaner, since there was time to disinfect it while it sat on the ground overnight," she explained.
Wilson also received a disinfecting wipe along with her complimentary water and pretzels. You can also bring your own wipes and hand sanitizer. Remember, the TSA is currently allowing you to bring up to 12 ounces of hand sanitizer, up from the normal 3.4-ounce maximum.
Related: What to pack onboard your next pandemic-era flight
On all my recent Southwest Airlines flights, I felt extremely safe and as comfortable as possible during these strange and uncertain times. My fellow travelers have been good about wearing their masks, and compliance was regularly reinforced by the flight attendants. The minimal onboard service has likely helped, since there's not much in the way of complimentary food and beverages. .
All that said, some Southwest flights will fill up after Dec. 1, when the airline is no longer capping capacity. So, plan accordingly and ensure you're able to claim your preferred seat on board with strategic boarding pass assignments.