I flew on Southwest Airlines during the pandemic and came away impressed by how well the largest low-cost US airline handed social distancing

  • Southwest Airlines is primed to recover quicker than its competitors since the airline focuses on domestic service with a passenger-friendly low-cost business model.
  • Despite being a low-cost airline, Southwest is limiting capacity by around a third which means only two people maximum can sit in a row, leaving the middle seat unoccupied. 
  • I flew on the airline to see how its seemingly-generous policies translated into a real-world experience and was impressed with how the airline is handling this crisis. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to keep international borders closed to Americans, domestic airlines in the US are slated to recover quicker than international airlines that rely on sales of premium seats on long-haul flights.

Southwest Airlines is the largest low-cost airline in the US primarily focused on domestic leisure travel with a sterling reputation among passengers, making it prime for a speedy recovery. Despite its low-cost status, the airline still offers plenty of full-service amenities including free checked bags, complimentary drinks and snacks, and free flight changes. 

Implementing what it calls the "Southwest Promise," the airline is limiting bookings on every flight by around one-third in order to have a maximum of two people per row. Southwest follows a policy of open seating so seats aren't selected in advance.

I flew on Southwest last week to see how the airline's generous social distancing policies played out in the real world. Flying from New York to Orlando via Nashville, I experienced two flights on the low-cost airline and its fleet of Boeing 737 aircraft.

Here's what I found. 

My journey to Orlando started on Southwest Airlines from the new LaGuardia Airport Terminal B, from where I'd first fly to Nashville.

Southwest and LaGuardia Airport both require face coverings so I was masked up from the moment I got to the terminal.

Before I even arrived at the airport, I had to acknowledge this health declaration. A longer version on the website tells passengers "do not travel if you have a fever."

Here's the new Southwest check-in counter at LaGuardia Airport with no shortage of self-serve check-in kiosks.

The terminal had just opened less than two weeks prior to this trip and safety features such as plexiglass partitions at check-in and the gates had come standard. Every airline, including United and Southwest, had these partitions.

Read More: I visited the newly opened LaGuardia terminal and saw how it has turned the infamous airport into one of the best in the US

I quickly scanned my mobile boarding pass to get a paper copy. The airport had positioned wipe stations right next to the kiosks.

My journey was a simple one-stop flight to Orlando, making for an easy morning of flying.

Everything before the gate was up to LaGuardia, not Southwest. So let's go straight to the gate.

All gates in the terminal also had the standard partitions installed by the airport.

Southwest's website says that all of its check-in and gate counters have partitions but I'd have to wait until I landed in Nashville to find out for sure.

Gate agents made an announcement before boarding about Southwest's social distancing policies but there was no reinforcement from any signage, unlike what I've seen from other airlines. Agents also gave face masks to those who needed it.

Southwest boards its aircraft by boarding group – A, B, and C – with each person given a number from 1-59 in that group. This requires people in each boarding group to line up, with 30 on each side.

The procedure, however, was modified to only have groups of 10 line up and board at a time, with the rest remaining seated until their group was called.

Our gate didn't have that set-up and instead, we boarded by groups of 30.

The trick on Southwest is to check-in online at exactly 24 hours prior to the flight to get the best boarding group. I was 13 min late to check in the day before and still got an A assignment, which nearly guarantees and aisle or window seat.

Most gates had these passenger-facing ticket scanners but our flight was boarded with the gate agent manually scanning each ticket with a handheld device.

There were also no social distancing reminders in the jetway.

Our aircraft for the 2-hour hop to Nashville would be the Boeing 737-800, the largest in Southwest's fleet.

All passengers and flight attendants are also required to wear masks on Southwest.

Southwest still boards passengers with their assigned number and, naturally, the front half typically fills up first.

Those boarding last have to walk past those who boarded and head to the back.

This was the 6 a.m. flight so it was understandably empty but less than half the plane's capacity was filled.

There were maybe 60 passengers with entire rows left open.

With so few passengers, we didn't have to worry about social distancing but Southwest is limiting bookings by around a third. Only two people can sit in any row with an exception for families.

I headed to the back to get the best seat on the 737-800 series, 16A.

It's an exit row window seat with no seat in front of it, offering near-unlimited legroom.

The Southwest Promise boasts at least six hours of overnight cleaning and it showed on this flight.

Source: Southwest Airlines

Even my tray table was spotless.

All the in-flight literature besides safety cards had been removed as a precaution.

Flight attendants also asked passengers not to store sanitary wipes in the seats as they'd come around after boarding with a trash bag.

The one downside was that the air vent, which experts say can provide a cone of fresh air for protection, wasn't too strong and I could barely feel the filtered air.

Soon enough, we blasted out of LaGuardia en route to Nashville.

We were also treated to a nice view of Manhattan on departure.

Southwest is limiting in-flight service on its flights and only offering a snack and beverage for journeys over 250 miles, which we were luckily over.

Source: Southwest Airlines

Flight attendants came around with a self-serve bin of Southwest's snack mix — containing pretzels, bread crisps, and Cheez-Itz — and cups of water with ice.

That was the entirety of the service with flight attendants also leaving this tray out in the galley.

Southwest does have complimentary streaming entertainment including live television, movies, and messaging. WiFi is offered for $8.

It was smooth sailing down to Nashville but a quiet flight as the crew didn't really interact with passengers after the service.

The deplaning process was the same, though, as everybody rushed for the exit.

Southwest's cleaning crews had already begun cleaning the aircraft after the flight, wiping down all surfaces including the overhead panel.

At the gate in Nashville, I saw that Southwest had, in fact, erected partitions at their gates with social distancing reminders.

Southwest had placed floor placards in the boarding area, as well.

The signage, however, still didn't show any social distancing information, just flight details.

The boarding procedure is Nashville was adapted to the new policy with groups of only 10 being called to line up and board at the same time.

It was clear from the gate area that this was going to be a fuller flight. Face coverings aren't required at Nashville Airport but the Southwest gate agent told passengers that they need to be on when they have their tickets scanned.

Passengers followed the rule of 10 and distanced at their leisure. Boarding passes were once again scanned by the gate agent.

Just like in LaGuardia, there were no placards in the jetway and I noticed the same in Orlando.

I scored another window seat on this flight.

This flight was near to capacity but middle seats were not occupied unless a family was traveling together. Flight attendants continuously made announcements saying that a maximum of two people could sit in each row.

It was smooth sailing down to Orlando with no notable disruptions. Even the seats were as clean as when I got on in New York.

The service was the same, a package of snack mix and a cup of ice water. This flight was only around an hour and a half.

An hour later, we were in Orlando.

The deplaning experience was also the same, with everybody rushing to get up and off as quickly as possible.

I've never had a bad flight on Southwest and that held true, even during a pandemic.

Southwest, once again, bucked the notion of what it means to be a low-cost carrier. I was shocked that the airline not only was limiting bookings to keep middle seats open but was also still providing the in-flight service, albeit limited. 

My two flights on Southwest were among the favorites out of my seven flights on the big four in June. The carrier's passenger-focused customer service really shined on these flights and made for an enjoyable experience. 

Promises made by the airline were largely kept, with the one exception being the boarding process at LaGuardia. The only downside was that the airline is not amending its boarding procedure to include a back to front process like other airlines. 

Other than that, Southwest is doing pandemic flying right. 

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