Southwest Airlines is serving drinks again, encouraging ‘non-verbal’ ordering

Mar 24, 2021

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Soft drinks are back at Southwest Airlines! As of this month, passengers on flights of over 250 miles will be able to choose from Coke, Diet Coke and 7Up, in addition to water, which is available on all flights.

The move comes as other U.S. carriers begin resuming certain elements on their onboard service. Delta will expand its snack and beverage offerings beginning on April 14, for example, while United is returning some dining options as soon as April 1 on certain routes.

What’s notable about Southwest’s shift is how the airline is asking customers to place their order. Rather than the usual spoken exchange between passengers and crew, the airline is encouraging flyers to utilize “non-verbal” ordering, instead.

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Travelers can view drink options on the inflight portal via southwestwifi.com, and simply zoom into the picture of the drink of choice. Alternatively, flight attendants can hold up a menu with four numbered options — travelers can hold up their fingers to indicate their choice.

“Customers are expressing a preference for additional beverage options, so this is one small way that we can meet Customer requests while still limiting selections to support the wellbeing and comfort of our Customers and Employees,” a Southwest spokesperson said in confirming the move to TPG.

Southwest crew members are once again offering soft drinks onboard. (Photo by Stephen M. Keller/Southwest)

Health experts have documented that speaking can lead to increased transmission of COVID-19. While passengers are legally required to be wearing their masks except while actively eating or drinking, there’s always a chance that a traveler ends up mid-bite as the flight attendant comes by to offer a drink.

Still, is it worth the extra effort for the airline and flight attendants? For that, I checked in with Dr. Elaine Hanh Le, chief medical officer for Healthline, TPG’s sister site.

“In many ways, this new strategy of showing people a photo of the options with numerical badging and having the person indicate selection via hand signals is great, not just to prevent the spread of COVID or any disease that could be transmitted via air droplets,” Dr. Le said. “It is also potentially great for people who do not speak the native language or who have hearing difficulties.”

This shift could also improve the travel experience for some flyers after the pandemic as well. As Dr. Le points out, presenting beverage options on a numbered card makes it possible for non-English speakers to place their order. For those travelers, some could end up skipping the beverage service entirely because of an inability to communicate with the crew.

Still, “non-verbal” ordering won’t be an option for everyone. “There will always be people who need to have the options spoken to them and who will need to have the option spoken back, including people with vision difficulties,” Dr. Le said.

Featured photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

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