Southwest Airlines CEO Says It’s Safe To Fly

Filed Under: Southwest

Airlines are in a tricky position when it comes to the messaging around the safety of flying. Southwest Airlines’ CEO seems to think it’s totally safe to fly again, going so far as to say that planes are as safe of an environment as anywhere.

Southwest Airlines CEO says it’s safe to fly

Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly appeared on “Face the Nation” yesterday, and the interview started off with a rather tough question — “is it safe to fly again?”

Kelly’s answer was an unequivocal yes, and he provided the following reasoning:

  • His answer to the question was “it is,” without any hesitation
  • Southwest Airlines is doing everything they can to encourage people to come back and fly
  • Southwest is doing everything they can to clean planes, they’re requiring employees and customers to wear masks, they’re deep cleaning planes every night, they’re using electrostatic misters, they’re exercising social distancing, and they’re not booking planes full
  • When asked how much risk there is to flying, he said “I don’t think the risk on an airplane is any greater risk than anywhere else, it’s as safe of an environment as you’re going to find.”

That last statement is quite something.

If you want to watch the full interview, you can do so here:

How Southwest Airlines sees demand recovering

When asked about how demand will recover, Kelly stated:

  • He thinks the airline saw the bottom in April, and that each week after the first week of April has gotten successively better
  • May will be better than April, and while June won’t be a good month, it will hopefully be better than May
  • Southwest is seeing a good number of future bookings into next year

What message should airlines be sending now?

Airlines are in a tricky situation here in terms of the expectations they should create when it comes to flying. It goes without saying that airlines succeeding relies on people feeling comfortable flying.

Perceptions around flying seem particularly complicated right now:

  • Many of us have been social distancing for about two months
  • There are still lots of new COVID-19 cases in the US
  • At the same time, in some areas we’re starting to see businesses reopen in a phased manner, though it’s far from a return to normal across the board

There’s no denying that airlines are moving in the right direction when it comes to creating the perception that it’s safe to fly, by adding some social distancing guidelines, requiring passengers to wear masks, etc.

However, is it really fair to say that an airplane is as safe of an environment as anywhere? If by “anywhere” you mean a full subway or maybe even a full restaurant, I could see that. But for most of us the alternative environment is the inside of our homes.

Beyond that, the statement hardly takes into account the risk associated with the overall travel process, from getting to & from the airport, being in the airport, etc.

To be clear, I don’t disagree with Kelly’s general sentiment here (though maybe it’s a stretch to say an airplane is as safe as anywhere) — I do think airlines are moving in the right direction, and it might be safe(ish) if precautions are taken, as part of a gradual reopening of the economy.

But I think it’s also important to call out that there’s no such thing as social distancing on a plane, and that’s a misconception that many people have.

Bottom line

Southwest Airlines’ CEO says it’s safe to fly again, and also says that a plane is as safe of an environment as any. The steps that airlines are taking to protect customers are a move in the right direction, but personally I’m not ready to get on a plane just yet… but hopefully soon(ish)?

What do you make of Kelly’s comments?

  1. How is southwest seeing future bookings out through next year when their schedule currently only runs through October 30 2020. This is the last date that can be booked directly with Southwest and since Southwest doesn’t sell through any GDS where are these bookings originating from?

  2. I can see that Southwest would like their business to return to normal soon. However, it is a BLATANT LIE to say that the risk of contracting the coronavirus is not elevated in the aircraft. This is another example of greed trumping everything, including self-respect.

  3. I have to agree that flying is as safe as other environments (subway, bus). In fact, right now, it could be safer due to low numbers.

    Still, ideally everyone would stay still for a few more months to really drive down the numbers and risk. Rent a car, travel locally and keep your air to yourself instead of flying.

  4. I am wondering if SouthWest is actually slightly better positioned to come out of the situation in better shape than the big legacy carriers. I wonder if passengers will perceive a difference between airlines and we see demand differentiate in ways different than before. Or we will return to the price and frequency model driving everything.

  5. I can’t see how flying or indeed any mass transit system will be safe unless and until either a 100% reliable antibody test is launched to see if we have immunity or a vaccine has been developed, everything else is just window dressing trying to inspire confidence for the general public, I think most of us are not that stupid to think otherwise.

  6. Let’s play this out a bit. A customer follows the CEO’s guidance and books a flight. They end up contracting Coronavirus and file a lawsuit against Southwest for misleading information or gross negligence. How would the court likely rule?

  7. I agree with Gary Kelly. For the folks that are saying they don’t feel safe today, what needs to change 60-90 days from now, for you to feel safe? There isn’t going to be a vaccine. If there was, then we there would have been one for the common cold and flu, which is a much weaker disease, decades ago. So anyone standing in line to get this vaccine is nuts. The antibody testing is a joke and doesn’t tell you much of anything. There will still be cases/deaths. So, what do you need to see exactly? The planes are clean, the middle seat is blocked, most planes have excellent air filtration systems and the airports are empty. So what is it?

  8. Safe when? Now-when 90+% of pre-COVID volume doesn’t travel?

    Sorry, but this 100+k traveler won’t be booking flights, just because they block out the middle seat. The proximity to the traveler behind and in front of you is still the same.

    Where else in society,(sans your house/family) are you comfortable sitting prone in a confined environment with strangers less than 6′ away from you?

    GREED led to the cramped cabin designs and it will continue to devaluate these brands until they realize that an investment/sea change in this design is their primary way to survive.

    Ground 2×2 configs, or only book every 3rd row and one per side
    3×3 configs should be every 3rd row and only windows

    Actions like those demonstrate they’re listening to Social distancing and the science, NOT the share holders. That will build the trust back slowly.

    In the meantime, re-design what will be the long-term spatial needs of the cabins.

  9. After watching “The Southwest Promise” 3-minute YouTube video, which inspired confidence, I went ahead and booked tickets to travel to fly home on Memorial Day weekend. But, when ticketed, both one-way tickets have red font stating “You may change your travel date/time at no additional cost” because “…a flight(s) on which you are currently booked may be adversely affected.” Eh? Usually only see that when a WN flight is cancelled. There are currently only 2 scheduled non-stops between the city pair, so I’m a little skeptical of this now. Somewhat disappointed there will be no drink or snack service.

  10. @RR – exactly!! and thank you. There are even MORE official statistics to back this up.

    I have no problem getting on a plane tomorrow. Will watch this video later (thanks for posting it, Ben).

    Those in fear, please stay at home…or better yet, spend sometime researching (CDC website is a start)…the fear will decrease. Thank you!

  11. @RR and Jordan

    Yes, thank you. On top of all of that, no autopsies are being done at the moment. So everyone, unless they have visible wounds, are being labeled as a coronavirus related death.

  12. @$forsouthwest – ummm… yeah, money does come first, allows me to buy food, to carry health insurance, to cloth my children, pay for education… should I rely on my government for all of those things?

    @Jay – interesting comment, but if they heed that advice we can wave goodbye to travel as ticket pricing climbs to insanity

  13. @RR and @Jordan
    60k dead with 1 mil. confirmed cases.
    US population is 330 mil, so if we let it spead, there will be plenty more death.

    Do you think it is normal to see refregiated trucks filled with dead bodies in NYC?
    If the death rate in unaffected and if we are just mis-categorizing the cause of death, we shouldn’t need them.

  14. @Jay

    What commercial airliner can allot enough space for each passenger to have six feet around him? The market has spoken and customers prioritize price over comfort. It’s not as if seats on pre-Oasis American aircraft would have allowed for social distancing any better than post-Oasis. If you want to have a six-foot radius all to yourself on a plane, fly private. Airlines are for-profit entities. People cry about “science” but don’t actually understand it. Dying from COVID-19 is a highly unlikely outcome if one is relatively young and healthy, and you have to catch the virus in sufficient quantity in the first place. Transmission outdoors is near impossible with any sort of distancing and the air circulation systems on planes make transmission difficult there as well. I would have no problem flying commercial, but I am not obese and I don’t have asthma, diabetes, or hypertension. If you do, take proper precautions or stay at home. Also, maybe lose some weight. And stop eating meat. Animal husbandry produces far more carbon than flying, if you care about that sort of thing. Science says that animals are intelligent and have rich emotional lives, but it’s more important how they taste, right?

  15. @KA:

    Hear hear. Also, remember that “total deaths” isn’t a metric that’s generally useful when talking about COVID-19. The whole concept of “flattening the curve” is to alleviate an exponential increase in hospitalizations in a very short period of time that overburdens the healthcare system. All these dipshits arguing “Blah blah blah hoax…blah blah…cancer/flu/obesity kill X thousands more people per year blah blah blah” are, well, complete morons. 120,000 people (made up number for argument’s sake) over 12 months is a LOT more manageable than 62,000 people in 3 months.

  16. Time will tell for both camps, those who believe Covid19 is not a threat and life can return to normal and those who think that the recent lockdown and social distancing has saved life’s and reduced the burden on our frontline healthcare facilities. As states/countries relax lockdown we will all be watching if the number of new cases rises and what hospitals ICU’s look like, and if death rates increase. lest we forget the harrowing images that we saw coming out of NYC and the stories of our brave nurses and doctors on the frontline of this pandemic. I will be the first to hold my hands up and say, yes I was wrong things are not that bad and look forward to life returning to normality.

  17. @KA

    I live in NYC and 4 blocks from the Mt. Sinai by Columbia University and have for the past 11 years, so please spare me the nonsense. I have yet to see these refrigerators besides what’s being photographed on the news. I also just rode by a makeshift hospital in Central Park around East 90’th street that is shutting down today because they only treated 315 patients since they opened over a month ago. No autotopsies are being done, so every death is being labeled as coronavirus related. Don’t be so naive to think that every body that dropped was from cornavirus. Believe what you see with your own 2 eyes, not what you hear. I live in the heart of it all, so please stop the BS.

  18. @Alonzo

    I do agree that we should review information cautiously.
    You don’t have to believe everything that is on the news. But it sounds like you don’t believe anything that is on the news.
    If you believe that the US goverment, both conservative and liberal media outlets are incapable of accurately accounting number of death in the country… I guess you’d better start counting….

  19. It’s one of the few places that will enforce people wearing masks starting May 11… that combined with HEPA filters and (I believe) not selling all the seats means it should be fairly safe. Definitely more safe than the subway or bus IMO!

  20. Hmm a CEO who puts profit ahead of the safety of the American public. No shocker there. New estimates have the death toll for the US of hitting 135k+ this summer. Crammed into a metal tube with a bunch of people for a prolonged period of time? Yea that seems perfectly harmless.

  21. Remember: In a world defined by unpredictable risk, “when it’s safe” means “never.”

  22. Amusing that the CV19 deniers are showing up in the comments, just as the JHU model has upped their projected US death count by 2x…I guess Jared Kushner WASN’T right after all???

  23. Who is denying anything? What I do see is that the death toll is at circa 251,000 worldwide for covid-19. In a normal flu season worldwide 0.1% of people die from it. 7 million. I see the right diminishing this virus and I see the left – eg CNN (which realised not that long ago that being the centrist did not work) playing this up and up. If there were a million deaths in the US they would get some silent satisfaction.

    Just to make it clear to some of you many Manichean thinkers, I am far from a Trump supporter. I find him quite odious.

  24. @RR and all your fake aliases,

    You’re an idiot. The overwhelming evidence is that coronavirus deaths are systematically undercounted. The best analysis is to look at overall deaths, and how that correlates to historical trends. Generally indicates for most countries, reported figures are half of reality- so double the deaths to 120K.

    But even there, your analogy breaks down, because you repeatedly compare deaths that effectively happened in a month to annual figures for other forms of fatality. For locations with outbreaks, the death rate is about double historical norms. So you have twice the chance to die, carrying out normal daily activities.

    Best analogy to the current outbreak to me? London, during the Blitz. 40K civilians died during the bombing, so I’d expect you to argue that statistically, that’s a pretty nominal number- probably way more people died of other causes. One reason why fewer people died is because everyone took shelter when the air raids went off, but I’d expect you to conveniently ignore that as well. Finally- the masks! 50 million respirators were manufactured and handed out, with absolutely no scientific proof they did anything at all – so wearing masks was useless!

  25. I love how a bunch of nobodies on the internet claims to know more than the majority of the world’s leading epidemiologists. Yes, the media obviously sensationalises certain things, but I feel like Trump has crossed a very dangerous line by his constant “fake news this and fake news that.” People should be able to watch what’s going on around the world and use what’s shown to them and make informed opinions. All I can say is I feel so, so lucky to be in Australia and not the poorly run excuse for a developed country the US has become.

  26. It’s easy tbh — COVID deniers could open their own grocery stores & hospitals so they don’t need to risk the essential workers working in those places. Also, the 70,000 deaths is on top of all the cancer deaths, car accident deaths, flu deaths, etc. So we are losing more people due to COVID at a faster pace, not that we are losing the same people but just due to a different reason.

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