United, Southwest Airlines representatives detail safety of flying amid COVID-19

Southwest Airlines will begin flying out of George Bush Intercontinental Airport in 2021. (Courtesy Southwest Airlines)
Southwest Airlines will begin flying out of George Bush Intercontinental Airport in 2021. (Courtesy Southwest Airlines)

Southwest Airlines will begin flying out of George Bush Intercontinental Airport in 2021. (Courtesy Southwest Airlines)

As some Houstonians prepare to travel during the holiday season amid the COVID-19 pandemic, officials at United Airlines and Southwest Airlines said the plane cabins at their respective companies are among the healthiest, safest places passengers could find themselves.

Rodney Cox, vice president of the Houston Hub for United, and Quinnie Jenkins, community outreach manager for Southwest, said during a Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership webinar that their airlines have put extensive safety measures in place, from strict masking policies to contactless travel procedures, so that customers feel safe once they are ready to travel again.

“We’re confident that the combination [of cleaning practices in place] ... make the cabin interior one of the safest indoor environments in the world,” Jenkins said.

More than 15 million people fly via United in Houston each year out of George Bush Intercontinental Airport, and last year, Southwest saw more than 8 million passengers out of William P. Hobby Airport. Beginning next year, Dallas-based Southwest is expanding its services in the Houston and Chicago regions.

Both airlines saw a fraction of this usual customer base in 2020 as the pandemic spurred global lockdowns. However, by the Sunday after Thanksgiving, an average of around 20,000 people were flying United in Houston each day, Cox said.

Cox and Jenkins said that concessions are reopening at their respective Houston airports. Southwest planes will not offer food and beverage services to minimize close contact, but as of Dec. 1, the airline will resume seating customers in middle seats.

“We feel pretty confident in doing that,” Jenkins said, adding that even without the snack service, “customers can expect the same hospitality [they are used to].”

Stringent cleaning procedures are followed to ensure safety, and each aircraft is sanitized for six to seven hours each night, she said.

In addition to following guidance from the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control, Southwest has a team of professionals infectious disease experts on hand from Stanford University to assist in decision-making, Jenkins said.

While Southwest may be a direct competitor with United, Cox said the two airlines and others in the industry have made a regular practice of sharing policies and procedures with each other to ensure all players are operating at a safe standard.

“Although some may think we are staunch competitors, we actually try to work together—a lot of the things we are learning as a team, we are sharing with each other,” Cox said. “We all want to make sure that we can take care of the customers.”

Both representatives said all passengers and crew must wear masks aboard their aircraft, and masks are required inside of IAH and Hobby at all terminals. IAH also features curbside check-in at Terminal C to avoid overcrowding of the lobby. Cox said officials aim to implement the curbside check-in at the other two United terminals, E and B, as well.

United’s CleanPlus process involves reduced contact from start to finish, beginning with the addition of sneeze guards at check-in counters and signage promoting social distancing. Fewer people are boarded onto planes at a time, and customers at the back of the plane board first, according to informational materials presented.

“Sitting on board that airplane is one of the healthiest places you can actually sit,” Cox said.

Still, United travelers will be notified 24 hours in advance if their flight appears as if it will be at least 70% full, at which time they can re-book at no extra cost, he said. While crews do everything possible to encourage distancing and safe travel aboard the plane, certain aspects, such as the rush to deplane upon arrival, cannot be controlled.

“I’ve got to tell you: People are always ready to get off the plane,” Jenkins said. “We ask that each row wait for the row ahead of them before they get up and grab their things. ... Sometimes, they wait, and sometimes, they don't, and there's really not much that we can do about that.”

By Colleen Ferguson

Reporter, Bay Area

A native central New Yorker, Colleen worked as an editorial intern with the Cy-Fair and Lake Houston | Humble | Kingwood editions of Community Impact Newspaper before joining the Bay Area team in 2020. She covers public education, higher education, business and development news in southeast Houston. Colleen graduated in 2019 from Syracuse University and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, where she worked for the university's independent student newspaper The Daily Orange. Her degrees are in journalism and Spanish language and culture. When not chasing a story, Colleen can be found petting cats and dogs, listening to podcasts, swimming or watching true crime documentaries.