Southwest vs Allegiant: What it's like to fly a low-cost airline during a pandemic
While the coronavirus pandemic has continued to ground most TPG staffers, two of us cautiously went on domestic trips just last week to visit family. I hopped on a Southwest flight from New York La Guardia to Chicago Midway while my coworker Caitlin Riddell — TPG's Social Media Lead — flew from Fort Lauderdale to Knoxville on Allegiant Air.
Before our flights, we were both curious as to what flying a low-cost carrier would be like in the coronavirus age — especially since Southwest and Allegiant are wildly different airlines; the latter is a true ultra-low-fare, no-frills carrier. Would boarding be handled differently? How about the food and drink service? And most importantly: would our fellow travelers actually wear a mask?
Here, we'll share our observations with you so that you know what to expect if you're flying low-cost during the coronavirus pandemic.
That said, a quick disclaimer: you should only travel now if you feel comfortable doing so. Don't take our reports as words of encouragement to travel right now, but rather, use them to preview an in-flight experience before you make a decision so you're not met with any surprises.
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Flying Southwest Airlines during a pandemic
Southwest isn't my airline of choice, but it's currently operating the most flights between New York and Chicago. Southwest had both the time I wanted to fly and a pretty good price — my ticket cost just $98.98 one-way.
This flight would also let me take advantage of Southwest's double points promotion. All flights flown between now and September 30th earn double Rapid Rewards points, so I earned a cool 1,066 Rapid Rewards for my Wanna Get Away fare ticket. This equals a 16% return based on TPG's most recent valuations, which is pretty solid.
Related: Stretch your miles: the complete guide to airline coronavirus promotions
Southwest is — in my opinion — the best low-cost carrier on the planet. All passengers get a free full-size carryon and two checked bags and can sit wherever they'd like on the plane. That said, seating is the airline's most controversial feature — there are no seat assignments given ahead of time, so you simply choose your own seat when you get on the plane.
Southwest's boarding process plays a huge role in this. When you check-in, you're assigned a boarding number. Higher numbers are assigned to elite members and those who payup for early boarding, and everyone else is assigned a number based on when they check in for their flight.
The gate area was surprisingly empty
I was lucky enough to depart from LaGuardia's new Terminal B — you can read my full review of the experience. But for a quick synopsis, the terminal was great and I am really happy to see that the New York City airport system is making strides to modernize.
That said, my experience at the check-in counter was pretty much unchanged from the pre-coronavirus days. I used the automated kiosk to print my boarding pass as I didn't want to risk someone touching my iPhone. After that, I quickly sanitized my hands and headed to security.
After checking out the terminal for a bit, I made it to my gate. I was departing from Gate 57, which is located in the new wing of the airport.
The boarding area was open and modern, which was far different than the old Terminal B. Thankfully, people were sitting at least one seat apart in order to respect social distancing in the gate area.
At this time, I looked around the terminal and noticed that most passengers were wearing masks, with some opting for gloves too. This made me feel better about flying during the pandemic, and I hoped that it would continue throughout the flight.
Boarding was still a little way out, so I took a seat and caught up on work emails. The gate got more crowded as we got closer to the scheduled boarding time, but I could tell passengers were doing their best to keep some distance from one another.
The boarding process changed for the better
About five minutes prior to boarding, the gate attendant came on the intercom and told us that we'd be boarding a little late due to the cleaning crew sanitizing the aircraft. This was fine by me — in this day and age, I'm happy to arrive late if it means that the plane is sanitized. At this time, the gate was still pretty empty.
Ten minutes later, Southwest started the preboarding process. I stepped back to take photos, being sure to keep my distance from other travelers. Thankfully, I didn't see any "gate lice" rush to the gate — most people stayed seated or stood far back from the gate.
It was around this time that Southwest sent a push notification to my phone telling me that we'd be boarding in groups of 10, based on our assigned boarding number. The gate agent announced this too, and explained that we wouldn't be lining up in Southwest's usual boarding columns.
The gate agent also announced that all passengers must wear a mask or face covering on this flight. Further, she said that we should not be sitting in middle seats. The only passengers allowed to sit directly next to another passenger must be from the same household.
Now here's where things change. As soon as the first group of 10 passengers was called, the gate started to fill up. It wasn't as bad as a normal, pre-coronavirus gate crowd and I could tell that passengers were still trying their best to respect social distancing — or so I thought.
I was in boarding group A49, which means I was boarding towards the front. About three groups of 10 in, the gate area continued to fill up. The gate agent reminded passengers to keep their distance, which did cause a few people to move slightly.
I started to walk to the gate when my boarding group was called. It did look as if everyone called with me was making a point to stand apart — which was refreshing. Further, everyone boarding with me was wearing a mask.
When I approached the plane, my paper boarding pass was scanned and the agent wished me a safe flight. I walked on the plane and noticed that everyone did their best to stand six feet apart as they walked across the jetbridge and onto the Boeing 737-700 that would take us to Chicago.
About the time I got onto the plane, a flight attendant came on the intercom and reminded passengers not to take middle seats and not to sit side by side. This was largely respected, and — from what I saw — only small children sitting next to their parents were in middle seats.
I walked down the aisle and saw that a number of full rows were still open. This is likely a mixture of boarding in one of the earlier boarding groups and the fact that Southwest isn't currently flying full planes. Instead, it's only booking enough people so that all passengers can have an empty middle seat.
I made my way to the back of the aircraft, taking a seat in the third-to-last row. I figured this would give me the best chance of securing an entire row to myself. This turned out to be the case, and — once boarding concluded — I had two seats open next to me.
A look at the in-flight experience
Once everyone boarded, the pilot came on the intercom to introduce himself. He also announced that the flight was as full as it can be during the coronavirus, which surprised me as I saw that a number of passengers at the back of the plane had their own rows.
Everyone either had a full row to themselves or an empty middle seat — I'd say maybe 60% of the plane was full.
The flight then continued as normal. We taxied for a few minutes and quickly took off over Manhattan. I looked out the window when we were passing over the East River. For a second, I forgot about the pandemic and was just happy to be back in the air again.
After some turbulence, the cabin crew came back on and told us that we were free to move about the cabin, but that we should keep it to a minimum. There was to be no crowding near bathrooms, and drink service would be limited to water and a pack of pretzels.
Shortly after this announcement, flight attendants simply came by and dropped a plastic cup of water and pack of pretzels off on our trays. All flight attendants were wearing masks, so I accepted both and enjoyed my first airplane snack in months. That said, I'd have liked to see Southwest pass out bottles of water like Delta did on my flight back to NYC — which seems far more sanitary.
Related: 10 ways coronavirus could forever change the future of travel
After this, the flight continued on as normal. I bought a Wi-Fi pass to get some work done and after an hour-and-a-half or so, we were descending over Indiana and landing in Chicago.
Deplaning was absolutely lawless
Now here's the not-so-fun part: deplaning. After a bumpy and fast signature Midway landing, a flight attendant came back on the PA and told us to deplane slowly and respect social distancing. But as soon as we got to the gate, a number of passengers immediately stood up to get their bags. There was no social distancing going on here.
This was unfortunate to see but — in all honesty — expected. Thankfully, all passengers kept their masks on throughout the deplaning process. I stayed seated until the travelers in front of me were finished getting their bags. Then, I swiftly deplaned, walked out to the terminal and requested a Lyft to downtown Chicago.
I wouldn't hesitate to fly Southwest again
All in all, I feel like Southwest handled flying during the pandemic well. Capacity limits were respected, the staff was helpful and seeing everyone on the plane actually wearing a mask was very comforting.
The only uncomfortable parts of the flight were the gate area and deplaning, but there's not much Southwest can really do about that. I think the key is to be patient, wait your turn to board and deplane and take it upon yourself to distance from others. With that in mind, I wouldn't hesitate to fly Southwest again during the pandemic if the need arises.
Related: See all of TPG's Southwest Airlines coverage
Flying Allegiant air during a pandemic
Allegiant Air is more akin to what you'd expect from a low-cost carrier in the U.S. or Europe. It specializes in flying from small U.S. cities with cheap fares — some of its focus cities include Knoxville (TYS), Chicago - Rockford (RFD), and Phoenix - Mesa (AZA). That said, the airline recently expanded its route map to include major airports like Chicago - Midway and Boston.
Like myself, Caitlin wound up flying Allegiant Air over another carrier because of its price and the time it departed. Plus, it didn't hurt that her travel companions were also flying on this same flight.
The onboard experience is different from Southwest too. There are no free bags, and you'll have to pay for seat assignments. The airline isn't limiting capacity on its flights nor is it blocking middle seats, so you could still be seated in a middle seat if you don't pay up. It will, however, notify travelers if a flight is over 65% full and passengers will be able to rebook.
So, what's it like to fly Allegiant Air during the coronavirus pandemic? Let's take a look at Caitlin's experience flying from Fort Lauderdale to Knoxville.
The airport was a ghost town
Caitlin arrived to an eerie FLL airport on a Sunday afternoon. According to her, the check-in area was almost completely empty, with a number of check-in stations being completely unmanned.
Things were similar at the security checkpoint — it was somehow emptier than my flight out of LaGuardia, which was also near-deserted despite taking off in the middle of the afternoon. She quickly cleared security and headed to the C gates, where her Allegiant flight was the only departure.
On the way to the gate, Caitlin saw a number of closed shops and restaurants.
Even the Hudson Newsstands were closed in the C gates, so make sure to pack your own snacks if you're flying out of Fort Lauderdale during the pandemic.
Not everyone was wearing a mask at the gate
After arriving at the gate, Caitlin noticed that only 80% of passengers were wearing a mask. She did note that people were mindful of keeping their distance.
Looking out from the gate C5 where she was departing, you can really see just how empty Fort Lauderdale airport is. Some passengers took advantage of this, and socially distanced by sitting further away from the gate area.
When it came time to board, a flight attendant noted that they'd be boarding the plane back to front. Caitlin purchased window seat 3A, so she'd be boarding near last on this Airbus A320.
As she waited for her turn to board, she noticed that all passengers were very respectful of social distancing. There were markers on the floor that showed where travelers could line up when boarding the plane — this is a great touch on Fort Lauderdale's part, and something we'd like to see rolled out elsewhere.
Caitlin was not, however, offered a face mask and sanitizing wipe when boarding the plane. Allegiant recently announced that it would give all passengers a single-use face mask, disposable gloves and two sanitizing wipes upon boarding.
The onboard changes aren't for everyone
Once onboard, Caitlin found her seat but couldn't find space for her bag. The flight attendant was swift to help, offering a space for her to put her things right above her seat. According to the flight attendant, this is where they store the masks and sanitizing wipes that were seemingly never handed out.
Thankfully, Caitlin said that there were only two people in the row behind her and one person in the row next to her, so she had a whole row to herself. Unfortunately, though, this isn't always the case — her travel companion didn't pay for seat selection and was seated in a full row towards the back of the plane.
Once the rest of the passengers were in their seats, the pilot came over the PA to share some information about the air on the plane to ease passengers’ fears. He said the cabin air is exchanged with fresh air once airborne and that he wanted to provide the additional information to “make you feel more comfortable flying with us today.” She could tell that most of the passengers — including herself — really appreciated this information and the pilot's willingness to share it proactively before takeoff.
After this, the plane left the gate and took off quickly after a fast taxi.
Caitlin said the flight was 60% full at most, but that not everyone was wearing a mask — including flight attendants. She recalls seeing flight attendants use masks when walking about the plane and helping passengers, but that some would remove them once in the galley.
Caitlin wouldn't hesitate to fly Allegiant Air again
All in all, Caitlin found her Allegiant Air flight to be comfortable during the pandemic. She realizes that she lucked out with the empty seats around her, but that the pilot’s proactive safety information put her at ease. Caitlin even noted that she felt safer on this flight than on the American Airlines flight that brought her to Florida from Knoxville.
Related: See all of TPG’s Allegiant Air coverage
Flying during the coronavirus pandemic can be scary, but knowing what to expect may help put you at ease. Both Southwest and Allegiant have changed their operations to curb the spread of the coronavirus and protect travelers.
That said, each airline is handling this differently. As you can see in this article, there's a stark contrast between Southwest and Allegiant. Southwest is requiring masks while Allegiant isn't. Likewise, Southwest isn't filling middle seats while Allegiant has no booking restrictions.
My advice to those considering whether to travel now is this: do your research and know what you're comfortable with. Each airline is making its own changes to service, and you should be aware of what to expect to calm your nerves pre-flight.
Feature photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy