Southwest quietly scales back aircraft cleanings between flights

Aug 4, 2020

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Although the threat of coronavirus is still very real, at least one airline is starting to cut back on its cleaning procedures.

In a change that began Aug. 1, Southwest has quietly reduced aircraft cleaning between flights.

According to an internal memo viewed by TPG, between-flight cleanings will now focus on lavatories and tray tables. Other high-touch areas like seat-belt buckles, armrests, window shades, reading lights and vents will no longer be wiped down between each flight.

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This change comes as Southwest has tried to add back flights since dramatic cuts to its schedule this spring. While the airline likely won’t operate a full schedule by year-end, it has begun to add flights back to its schedule amid an uptick in summer travel. Yet, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly warned in July that the air-travel recovery appears to have stalled amid a resurgence in COVID cases across much of the U.S.

Still, as the airline has begun to add flights back to its summer schedule, it said in the memo that it is “returning to standard turn times, which reduces the time available to clean between flights.”

Minimizing the turnaround time between flights is a key focus for low-cost carriers like Southwest.

More: Southwest Airlines begins capping flight bookings to keep middle seats open

Unlike its bigger legacy rivals, Southwest doesn’t use traditional hubs that require flights to be scheduled in banks. Instead, Southwest routes connecting passengers through multiple bases across its network; the quicker it can turn a flight, the more aggressive it can be with its schedule.

Southwest’s turnaround times between flights has slipped to about 50 minutes, up from about 47 minutes as the pandemic began to affect U.S. travel in March.

Ro Hawthorne, a spokesperson for the airline, told TPG in a statement, “since flight schedules have increased, other areas of the aircraft will be disinfected during our overnight cleaning process, when Southwest teams spend six to seven hours per aircraft cleaning all interior surfaces.” Additionally, each plane will continue to undergo a monthly electrostatic spraying process, which kills viruses on contact for 30 days, according to the carrier.

More: What’s it like to fly during a pandemic? We compared 4 different US airlines

Southwest Airlines operations during the Coronavirus outbreak. // Stephen M. Keller, 2020
(Photo courtesy of Southwest)

The airline says that it tested five modified cleaning procedures at Dallas Love Field Airport (DAL) and came up with this solution based on feedback from ground crew, in-flight employees and customers.

“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Southwest has been implementing new initiatives and evolving our processes,” Hawthorne explained in an email to TPG. “As always, Southwest will monitor customer and employee feedback as we adapt to the new normal in air travel, while ensuring we keep safety as our top priority.”

More: How US airlines are working to keep flyers healthy

The airline will continue to provide sanitizing wipes to customers, upon request, to wipe down any onboard surface. Southwest has also confirmed that it will continue limiting the number of passengers on each flight, effectively blocking middle seats, through at least October. Other changes include shifting boarding groups to groups of 10 at a time and cutting in-flight service to the bare minimum.

Southwest’s change to its between-flight cleaning protocol comes as some reports suggest spreading of COVID via surfaces appears to be less common than airborne person-to-person transmission, which can be reduced with mask-wearing and social distancing.

Southwest landed fifth place in TPG’s 2020 best airlines report, which focused entirely on how each of the major U.S. carriers have responded to the pandemic. In first place was Delta Air Lines, primarily because of its rigorous cleaning procedure and commitment to reducing capacity on its flights.

Featured image by Katie Genter / The Points Guy.

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