In an interview today with CNBC, Southwest Airlines’ CEO, Gary Kelly, offered his insights about what it might take for U.S. travel to resume again once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control.
Following the release of the airline’s first-quarter earnings report, Kelly confirmed that April 2020 has seen just six percent of seats filled for Southwest and stated that the company doesn’t expect that figure to rise past ten percent in May. “The traffic levels are next to zero at this point,” he said. Southwest’s earnings release further said that it expects to see “no material improvement” in air-travel numbers for the current quarter, ending in June.
Speculating on Americans’ impending return to air travel, and travel in general, Kelly referred back to the broader picture. In order for people to plan a trip, “They need to have something to be able to do when they get there,” he said. “So, Disney World needs to open back up. Restaurants need to open back up,” for example.
“I think a lot of things are going to have to happen for the country come back to life, much less air travel,” Kelly reflected. We and the federal government have a role to play in this.”
The reopening of area attractions is one factor that will spur movement, but new safety measures will also be needed to boost customers’ confidence once COVID-19 has been sufficiently quelled in order to lift travel restrictions. “We’ll need to disinfect our airports and our airplanes, and our customers will need to know what we’re doing and they’ll need to feel comfortable with that,” Kelly told reporters.
Kelly also said that Southwest supports the idea of health screenings conducted pre-boarding at the airport, to better protect passengers and provide an enhanced sense of safety, “We’ll need to work with the federal government in terms of screening customers to make sure, for example, that you don’t have someone getting on the airplane that has a fever,” Kelly said.
He said that Southwest will be encouraging air travelers to wear masks, but didn’t indicate that the airline would require them of passengers, as JetBlue has announced that it will do. He stated that the carrier plans to offer “PPE kits” for passengers, but offered no details regarding their contents, or whether they would be free or come at an additional cost.
Social-distancing considerations are also a part of Southwest’s plan moving forward. Although the airline doesn’t have assigned seating and, therefore, won’t be eliminating middle seats through ticketing, Kelly said that passengers may assume all middle seats should go unoccupied, since Southwest will limit ticket sales for each flight.
“We won’t have airplanes that are booked full,” he said. “(That’s) certainly not an issue right now but in the coming months we’ll want customers to be comfortable that there’ll be spacing.”
To prompt customers’ planning of future travel for days ahead, after the coronavirus threat has passed, Southwest also today announced a nationwide sale on fall 2020 airfare with mainland domestic routes going for as little as $49 one-way and international flights starting as low as $128 one-way.
For more information, visit southwest.com.
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