As part of a last minute trip to Wine Country with my, specifically to the Hyatt Regency Sonoma, we had the opportunity to to experience what travel would be like in the time of COVID. As it turned out, and was also expected, there was quite a bit about the act of flying that had changed from the past.
Personally, we selected Southwest for a number of reasons - the primary being that it is our preferred and most trusted carrier. Beyond that, we appreciated that they had committed to a reduction in capacity and clearly outlined their commitment to cleanliness.
Beyond the reasons stated above, we also selected Southwest because of price. Even at the last minute, we were able to snag our outbound flight for $79 and our return one for $149 on Southwest.com - the only place to book flights on Southwest.
I booked mine using cash and TravelBank Funds - I often watch flights after booking them to see if they drop, and if they do I modify them free of charge and get the difference in fare back to my Rapid Rewards Account. Because of this, I owed just $30 in cash for the outbound flight, so I booked using my American Express Platinum hoping it would be reimbursed from my travel credit - it was! So essentially, my outbound flight was free, but by using my American Express Platinum, I also earned 5x points per dollar on airfare or 895 Membership Rewards Points.
My mom booked her flight using the stockpile of Rapid Rewards Points that she’s Earned with her Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier VISA Card, meaning her flight cost just $5.60 in government fees each way. We both earned 1,276 Rapid Rewards Points by crediting these flights to our accounts.
Our experience at Oakland International Airport begins at the National Car Rental Lot where we quickly dropped off our vehicle. As we were on our way to the shuttle, I received an alert that our flight would be delayed by two hours, so we decided to wait a little while outside of the rental car center instead of proceeding to the terminal. Then, a few moments later, I received another alert that our flight was back on time. We scrambled, boarded the shuttle and rushed to Terminal 2 - which is entirely occupied by Southwest - to check our bags.
Once in the terminal - after sending my mom directly to TSA as we were tight on time and I had PreCheck - I strolled up to a Southwest Kiosk and self-tagged our two free checked bags, naturally filled with wine, and printed my boarding pass. From there, I looked for a line for the bag drop, and noticed that despite social distancing markers for the line, there was complete chaos and no clear line. That being said, I waited just a few minutes to hand my bag over to a Southwest Agent behind a plexiglass shield, and from there I sanitized my hands and was on my way to security. I also noticed that Southwest Agents were roaming the check-in area handing out facemasks to those who needed them as they are now required to be worn at all times on the aircraft.
In the TSA PreCheck area, social distance markers adhered to the floor helped to keep me spaced from the few folks ahead of me. Once up to a masked agent, I scanned my own physical boarding pass and handed over my Driver’s License. From there, I shifted over to be blocked by a plexiglass shield and pulled down my mask for visual verification. Loading items into trays and passing through metal detectors proceeded as normal.
In a matter of minutes, I had made it through into a surprisingly busy terminal with many businesses open. Little did I know that my aircraft was departing from Gate 6 in Terminal 1, so I had quite the hustle ahead of me. On my walk, I noted how many Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines aircraft were stored at Oakland.
At the gate prior to boarding, our operations agent came on the loud speaker to announce that we would not be following Southwest’s standard boarding procedures, which you can read about in our other Southwest Review, and instead be boarding in groups of 10 on only one side of the iconic boarding posts. She explained that social distancing dots were on the ground and that the next group would only proceed once the jetway was empty to avoid bunching.
The actual boarding process was far quicker than the usual process and even with my B2 position, I was on the aircraft shortly after boarding commenced and following my obligatory pat on the Southwest Heart. Plus, no bunching on the jet way which is a major pet peeve of mine. We were complete with boarding about ten minutes early and welcomed by a message from the Captain that explained they adjusted our delay because he felt we could beat the storm that was descending upon Chicago. We then pushed back three minutes prior to scheduled departure.
Seat & Cabin
As we’ve mentioned before, Southwest famously operates only one type of aircraft: the Boeing 737. Our flight was operated by the smaller 737-700 dressed in the Missouri One livery - a fun fact about this one is that it has Split Scimitar winglets whereas most 737-700s in the fleet have the standard blended ones. Like the whole fleet, however, this aircraft was equipped in an all economy 3-3 layout. Each seat had 32” of pitch, a full size tray table, and storage pocket.
Notable differences was that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Southwest has limited the capacity of ticket sales for all aircraft - meaning that all middle seats will go out empty, unless a family travelling together chooses to sit together. With that, capacity of this 737-700 drops from a typical 102 Passengers to a miniscule 79 Passengers. Also absent are any items in the seatback pocket, other than the safety information card. Another notable aspect of COVID is how spotless each of these aircraft were. I wiped down my seat, tray table, armrests, windows and overhead vents and found that my wipes were still as glistening white as when I pulled them out of their package. Naturally, I then used them to wipe down my laptop top and phone where they returned in less than pristine condition.
Food & Beverage
Given the CDC’s recommendation to reduce person to person interaction, Southwest has opted to provide a modified drink service only once during each flight over 250 miles. This service consisted of glasses of ice water and a bag of snack mix. And while snack mix was quite substantial, I would recommend packing more snacks if you’re traveling during a mealtime. I’d also recommend bringing your own water onboard as for a flight this long, one small glass may not be sufficient for all. Even though I had my water bottle filled at the airport, I was quite happy to see one flight attendant make a second round with ice water.
Amenities & Service
As with all Southwest flights, an array of Movies, TV Series, and Live TV can be accessed free of charge via the Southwest App or Website. I counted 54 Movies and 16 TV Series available. Also found are a number of games, music, destination information and an interactive map. Beyond this, Southwest offers free messaging for all passengers. The entire fleet is also equipped with WiFi that is available for purchase should you need more access. The only casualty to COVID-19 in this department is the removal of the In-Flight Magazine, which I will admit that I missed reading.
The service on this flight is what made it especially memorable. Traveling during COVID is stressful, anxiety inducing and nerve wracking, and this crew really seemed to understand and fittingly brightened our day. Once we were boarded and our captain announced that we’d be racing the storm, lead flight attendant Adele came over the PA and delivered an incredibly heartfelt welcome address mentioning the tough times and sincerely thanking each passenger for the trust placed in Southwest Airlines - the reason we chose them in the first place. After that, she acknowledged that the mood needed to be lightened and continued to deliver an awesome rap of the safety briefing which she followed up with a welcome rap once we got to Chicago (you can check it out at this link). A few interesting things to note is how the safety briefing - yes, I still listen every time - was modified to include the verbage to remove your facemask prior to utilizing the oxygen mask and that no lines are allowed to occur for either lavatory due to social distancing. This crew was truly fantastic, from the captain updates to the way that each smiled with their eyes - knowing that the signature Southwest Smile was underneath each facemask.
The approach into Chicago was one of the more impressive I’ve seen because of the gradient of changes that were occurring outside the window as we circled around the aforementioned storm. On our final approach the view out my window showed the severity of what we’d just beaten to the ground by a matter of minutes - perfect timing! Coupled with a 20 minute early arrival, we were all happy campers onboard.
While social distancing was encouraged while deplaning, people still tended to bunch together, albeit less than usual. From there, we were on our way through Midway Airport to the baggage claim where social distancing dots had been added to the floor and largely obeyed. In what seemed like a record delivery for Midway, our bags were out just a few minutes after we’d walked up!
This was definitely a unique trip, to say the least, as none of us ever imagined finding ourselves in the current global pandemic that we do now - nor that the US would be bringing up the rear in fighting it. That being said, I was anxious for this trip, but ultimately felt completely at ease once I’d experienced the changes that took place along each step of the travel experience due to COVID. In fact, the flight was the least stressful portion of the entire trip and I feel entirely confident in the measures that Southwest has taken.
Ultimately, the decision to travel during these times is a personal one, which Ian recently made with Spirit Airlines, and one where each of us must decide if we are comfortable with the risks we are taking. Would I do it again? I’m not entirely sure. I think I’d evaluate the situation and make a judgement call, but I can tell you for certain that Southwest will continue to be my airline of choice during these times.