- United Airlines and Southwest Airlines make up the lower half
of the big four US airlines behind American and Delta.
- I flew on both airlines between New York and Orlando to see how
the duo was tackling social distancing policies during the
- The two each approach social distancing differently with
Southwest being more aggressive in its policies than United but
both lacked consistency.
Insider’s homepage for more stories.
United Airlines and Southwest Airlines are the third and
fourth-largest airlines in the country, respectively, and the final
two airlines that make up the big four in the US. Just like the top
two airlines in that group,
American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, their social distancing
policies and practices couldn’t be any more different.
Both carriers boast over 700 aircraft in their fleets and have
sizeable domestic and international networks. The main difference
between them being that United is a full-service legacy carrier and
Southwest is a no-frills low-cost airline.
United said in May that middle seats and certain aisle seats
would be blocked but later amended that policy after passengers
reported that flights were still going full. The airline now allows
aircraft to fill up but allows free changes if a flight is over 70%
full while Southwest, which doesn’t assign seats, limits bookings
by around one-third of a plane’s capacity so middle seats can
To get a sense of United’s and Southwest’s social distancing
policies are handling the pandemic and rising passenger numbers, I
flew between New York and Orlando with two flights on each airline
over the course of one day. My journey started on Southwest via
Nashville and ended with United to New York via Washington.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
Passengers still board with their assigned number and the front
half typically fills up first. Those boarding last have to walk
past those who boarded and head to the back.
All passengers and flight attendants are also required to wear
masks on Southwest.
This was the 6:00 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 Southwest, 16A on the
737-800 series aircraft.
The “Southwest Promise” boasts at least six hours of overnight
cleaning and it showed on this flight.
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.
Southwest is limiting in-flight service on flights over 250 miles,
which we were luckily over.
Flight attendants came around with a self-serve bin of Southwest’s
snack mix â€” containing pretzels, bread crisps, and Cheez-Itz â€”
and cups of water with ice.
That was the entirety of the service with flight attendants also
leaving this tray out in the galley.
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
Southwest’s cleaning crews had already begun cleaning the aircraft
after the flight, wiping down all surfaces including the overhead
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
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.
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.
The deplaning experience was also the same, with everybody rushing
to get up and off as quickly as possible.
After not leaving the airport due to Florida’s quarantine rules for
New York visitors, I headed to the United check-in area to prepare
for the flight home to New York.
United isn’t blocking middle seats but they’re not letting
passengers select them in advance, prioritizing aisle and windows
first. Here’s what it said when I went to go pick my seats.
I was also required to accept this health declaration.
As the flight was over 70% full, a message appeared informing me
that the flight would be crowded and I had the option of changing
my flight for free.
I was given the option to depart from any Orlando area airport and
arrive at any New York area airport but there were no flights
available until the next day at 3 p.m.
There was some signage in the check-in area asking passengers to
social distance and counters featured plexiglass partitions.
Self-check-in kiosks were also spaced with the middle in a row of
three blocked off for use.
There were also designated kiosks for passengers who had
pre-purchased a checked bag allowance, allowing them to print a bag
tag only by scanning their mobile boarding pass.
I was once again asked if I wanted to change my flight but no
others had opened up. With a lack of alternatives as airlines are
cutting back on flights, this gesture felt empty.
The gate area also featured the partitions separating the
passengers and staff.
There was also this tiny sign letting passengers know their
aircraft was being cleaned to United’s new safety standards.
Other than that, though, there was little signage about United’s
safety policies or protocols at our gate, though agents made some
The gate across from ours, however, had some rotating signage like
this one. Another display outlined mask requirements on United
Flyers were asked to scan their own boarding pass at the podium
equipped with a passenger-facing scanner and hand sanitizer
station. We boarded the aircraft back to front and in groups of
That was, of course, after first class and United elites boarded
first. The jetway had no markers or placards reminding people to
social distance, though it didn’t appear to be a problem.
All passengers and cabin crew are required to wear face coverings
on United flights.
Very few middle seats were occupied and the ones that were seemed
to be because families wanted to sit with each other.
We got lucky the flight wasn’t too popular. United wasn’t blocking
these seats for booking but was limiting non-revenue standby
passengers, like airline employees who fly for free, from using
them to keep the flight loads down.
Everybody was given these alcohol pads upon boarding to wipe down
seats or sanitize hands.
Source: FS – All-Travel destinations-News
I flew on the 3rd and 4th-largest US airlines to see how
they're handling the pandemic and the difference was night and