Flying American and Southwest During the Pandemic (Trip Report)

American, Southwest, Trip Reports

Other than my Hawaiian trip in October, I haven’t flown anywhere in over a year, so it was with just a little excitement that I booked this day trip to Phoenix a mere four days before travel. I flew two different airlines, and one offered a good experience while the other… not so much. Was American or Southwest better? There’s a good chance you guessed wrong.

The biggest difference in booking a flight these days is that the price is now a whole lot lower. Even at this last minute, tickets were only $72.40 each way from Long Beach. I could have flown for half that from LAX, and during normal times that might have been a fun choice. But flying out of LGB allowed me to avoid crowds and wait outside for my flight for a very short time since I can arrive so close to departure. That sounded a lot better than squeezing into LAX.

American had the first flight out, so that’s what I took. I was pleasantly surprised to find that SkyWest would be operating the flight with a CRJ-700 instead of Mesa’s CRJ-900. On the return, Southwest had a flight at the right time, so I snagged it using points.

Leading up to the flights, both airlines sent me emails. American just wanted to reassure me about all the measures they’d put in place to protect travelers from getting sick, but Southwest sent me this:

Is this really still necessary? Flights are becoming more full, and I imagine it’s pretty common for there not to be an alternative. At this point, you’re just reminding people, and that’s not helping anyone. I think it’s time to sunset this email.

The morning of travel, I left home an hour before departure, as usual. I like that this first flight has been pushed a half hour later than it used to be. A 7:15am flight seems much more civilized than one at 6:45am, especially since we used to have to wait at the end of the runway until 7am due to the noise ordinance anyway.

I was going to just park in the garage, but then I realized that since it was a day trip, I could just park on the street outside the airport. It added about 5 extra minutes to my walk into the terminal, but it was free. You can see above that white building which is the garage and how much further I had to park. Not much.

I strolled by the historic terminal looking quite stately in the morning light and walked inside. I was surprised to find that nobody is using JetBlue’s old ticket counter space yet. Everyone is crammed in at one end.

The security lines were empty, so I sailed through and found myself staring out at this view:

I sat down at a table in the courtyard and waited until it looked like we had started boarding. American is now using gate 5, one of the old JetBlue gates. Other than Hawaiian and one other Southwest airplane, the whole area looked pretty empty that morning.

Since I have the AA credit card, I can board with group 5, but when I got there, they were already at group 7. Oh well, didn’t matter. I just had a laptop case to put under the seat anyway.

February 21, 2021
American 3114 Lv Long Beach 715a Arr Phoenix 947a (operated by SkyWest)
Long Beach (LGB): Gate 5, Runway 30, Depart 2m Early
Phoenix (PHX): Gate B22, Runway 7R, Arrive 6m Early
N758EV, Mitsubishi CRJ-701ER, Ugly Flag colors, ~80% Full
Seat 14A, Coach
Flight Time 56m

As I boarded, the flight attendant at the door handed out sanitizer wipes which I used to clean my seat area further even though it already looked pretty clean.

The former Atlantic Southeast airplane looked good inside, much better than the usual Mesa interior. I took my seat in row 14 and looked around only to find the window badly scratched. Bummer.

The flight attendants had a good boilerplate spiel that now includes much about pandemic measures. It was a friendly crew.

Fortunately, the flight wasn’t completely full, and the seat next to me stayed empty. How nice. We taxied down but then we waited. And waited. I was surprised when the pilot told us that we had an air traffic control delay in Phoenix. It lasted less than 10 minutes, and at 7:30am, our wheels were up into the morning sky.

This was a barebones flight. Due to the pandemic, there was no service, and the flight attendants announced that there was no wifi either. It was a choppy day at altitude, so we cruised really low. The pilots originally announced, I think, we would be at 35,000 ft, but we never went above 29,000. Then after 5 minutes there, we came all the way down to 23,000 where we stayed until descent. The seat belt sign stayed on the entire time even though the ride smoothed out once we got over Arizona.

Despite the earlier air traffic control hold, we still landed early enough that we had to wait for an airplane to clear our gate. It didn’t take too long. Once we were taxiing in, the flight attendants said that due to the pandemic they would ask everyone to stay seated and they would let people off a couple rows at a time. Then this happened:

What, you don’t see anything? That’s because PEOPLE LISTENED. It was so weird… and pleasant. Overall, it was a nice flight, and even if the seat next to me had been filled, it wouldn’t have changed my experience much. I was just staring out the window anyway.

A mere 7 hours after I arrived, I was dropped back off for my flight home. This time, I had opted for Southwest because the flight time was better. It’s nice to have more options in the Long Beach – Phoenix market again after American’s pulldown.

I had checked in on my phone at the 24 hour mark and got B10. I was surprised to see nobody obeying social distancing rules in the security lines except for me. The people behind me were RIGHT behind me. The good news is it didn’t take long at all to get through the line anyway.

On the other side, I took a slow walk to the high C gates whence I’d be departing. It wasn’t too crowded there, but around my gate there were a fair number of people, so I wandered. The gate podiums have all been outfitted with protective shields. It feels like I’m walking into a check cashing place.

I finally found a seat a couple gates down that was away from everyone. I heard them announce that boarding was beginning for our flight, and then I realized I hadn’t heard anything else in awhile. Turns out that only the initial announcement was broadcast that far, so by the time I got there, they were boarding B21-30. During the pandemic, they only do boarding 10 at a time. I walked right on.

February 21, 2021
Southwest 3373 Lv Phoenix 543p Arr Long Beach 6p
Phoenix (PHX): Gate C17, Runway 25R, Depart 3m Late
Long Beach (LGB): Gate 2, Runway 30, Arrive 4m Early
N969WN, Boeing 737-7H4, Hot Dog on a Stick colors, ~99% Full
Seat 5A, Coach
Flight Time 57m

There was no wipe handed out on the airplane, but that wouldn’t have helped anyway. I needed a vacuum. I was pleased to see an empty window in row 5, but man, they did not clean this thing at all. The seat was dirty, but I didn’t get a photo of that. I did get a shot of the floor, however.

You probably assume it was just a quick turn so they didn’t have time to clean, but no. The airplane had a very long 1.5 hours between its arrival from Houston and our departure. The more I thought about this, the more it bothered me. Sure I’ve been in dirty planes before, but during the pandemic, it made me wonder just how dirty the airplane was. So much for enhanced cleaning.

The plane was packed full and so were the bins. There seemed to be some confusion around carry-ons. I couldn’t quite figure out what was happening, but it definitely involved there being no bin space and people still thinking they could jam stuff in. The flight attendants did their best to help, but in the end it meant we pushed back a couple minutes late while everything got sorted. The good news about these gates, however, is they are right next to the runway threshold so there is no taxi time.

Once in the air, the glare was strong and my window was dirty. The pilots told us that since it was a pandemic and the ride was “not good,” there would be no service and the flight attendants would stay seated. I’m guessing that means there wouldn’t have been service anyway due to the pandemic, but the part about the flight attendants being seated was because of the turbulence, but I don’t really know.

I was so exhausted, I just stared out the window the best I could with the glare as the sun slowly sunk toward the horizon. Shortly after passing the Salton Sea (visible above), we began our descent over a snow-capped Mt San Jacinto.

I was surprised when our airplane took a left turn and started heading south. I had sweeping views of Camp Pendleton as we turned back north around San Juan Capistrano. It was a beautiful setting as the sun began its dip below the horizon.

After passing over Newport Beach (above), we went over Huntington Beach and saw dozens of ships waiting for their turn in the port (below). The ports are doing good business these days.

We touched down and then went straight to the penalty box. This was my view:

There are 11 gates in the terminal, and only gates 1 and 2 had airplanes at them. We somehow had to wait for the airplane to push off gate 2. After maybe 5 to 10 minutes, we apparently got permission to go to gate 3 instead and pulled up a few minutes before scheduled arrival.

We all hopped off the plane, and I took this spectacular shot.

Overall, I liked what American did. There were constant reminders about the airline taking cleaning seriously, including that sanitizer wipe on boarding. The airplane looked clean, and it felt clean. Southwest, however, well, it didn’t feel the same way. Of course, both flights were on time, so I can’t complain too much. But comparing the two, I felt more comfortable on American, and that’s not because of the seating configuration. I was just staring out the window either way. These are things that I wouldn’t have thought about a year ago.

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41 comments on “Flying American and Southwest During the Pandemic (Trip Report)

  1. Hmmm… given that the current thought is that the virus that causes COVID-19 is rarely passed via surfaces, aren’t airline-dispensed wipes just as much cleanliness theater as blocked seats?

    On my Delta flights, I take the wipe, stuff it in my pocket and give it to my mother when I visit her. She likes the wipes a lot better than the horrible chocolate chip energy bar cookies that have replaced the Biscoff cookies in the snack bag.

    1. > On my Delta flights, I take the wipe, stuff it in my pocket and give it to my mother when I visit her. She likes the wipes a lot better than the horrible chocolate chip energy bar cookies that have replaced the Biscoff cookies in the snack bag.

      Agreed, I’m all about the Biscoff, and I know that Cranky’s kid is as well. Regarding the snacks on flights, you’ll often see products included that are outside of each airline’s “signature” snack (Biscoff, blue chips, etc). Big food companies work hard to get their snacks on flights, as selling those to the airlines for dirt cheap is seen by the marketers as a great way to “drive trial” and expose customers to their products (as opposed to, for example, sending coupons or paying for sampling programs in stores).

      As an aside, on my recent roundtrip I slept through most of my outbound Delta flight and on landing absentmindedly put the refreshments bag (left on the seat next to mine by the FA while I slept) in my briefcase and forgot all about it. Cue the return part of the trip, when I had to spend a few minutes waiting at security until the TSA had a chance to remove my “Delta water” (their words); leaving those in your bag is apparently a very common thing given the way that Delta now serves snacks.

    2. Dave – To me it’s all about what airlines can do to help customers feel safe, even if it is theater… without spending too much money or giving up too much revenue. I don’t know details, but I have to imagine that wipe company made it very cheap for AA to hand them out, and it makes people feel like cleanliness is being taken seriously. On the flip side, there’s Southwest. Do a bunch of crumbs mean I’m more likely to get COVID? No, but it suggests mentally that other parts of the experience aren’t clean either.

  2. Volumes at the ports of LA & Long Beach are at record highs, to the point that the ports have run out of spots for ships to anchor and have instead issued ships blocks of space for them to wait in in deeper waters (think holding patterns, but for ships, as each ship tries to use as little fuel as possible to stay in a square in the ocean a few miles across). Ships are waiting over a week on average before they even get a berth, and freight rates are 2-3x in many cases compared to the (pre-COVID) rates from early last year. Congestion is spreading to other ports as importers look to book loads to places like Oakland.

    1. Not a single person said anything about the America West mask, which was kind of sad for me. I should note that I was double masking there with a surgical mask underneath. Oh, and I also have the original logo America West mask, but I left that one at home.

      If people want them, let me know at and we might be able to sell them. Have to check.

  3. Throwback Thursday as Cranky does a trip report, with snark dialed to “low”. Made me nostalgic for those halcyon pre-Covid days.

  4. I completely agree that AA has done a great job this past year. Due to non-Covid related illness and eventual death of my Mom during the past year, my wife and I flew often between PHX and PHL. Mostly with an empty main cabin on A321s. AA planes felt, smelt and looked clean. The crews were great even the Admirals Club were fantastic. Will be taking a number of trips to PHL this year to visit my Dad and help him with life but Hawaii or Key West are on the radar, we haven’t had vacation since Disney in 2019 and have to cancel two cruises so a break, even just in a resort bubble is needed for mental health.

  5. For me, this is just more proof that the “halo effect” of Southwest isn’t really justified. I live in downtown Chicago and MDW is considerably closer/faster but I still prefer ORD. UA and AA are just as flexible as WN these days with award and paid tickets. I don’t really care about free bags as I usually carry on. And I’d rather have aspirational points that actually get me to cool places (sorry, Tampa – you ain’t cool). I just flew to/from MIA on AA and had great experiences both ways. Spotless planes, orderly boarding and disembarking, a few passes with bottles of water, and the rear galley was even set up to offer sodas on request. The thought of a 2+ hour flight on WN? Especially without power? No thanks!

  6. I agree with your comment on security. In ATL it seems TSA is oblivious to the concept of social distancing. On a recent trip, the agent wanted me to squeeze through a group of people to get to her desk, and seemed annoyed that I wanted to keep some distance from my fellow travelers.

  7. I agree that American has done a great job during this time period. I have flown Southwest pre-covid for all of my domestic flights, but have since switched exclusively to AA based on my experience over the past few months as my business travel has picked up again. Additionally, the agents at Southwest tend to be very authoritarian with the mask rules, I understand it is a federal mandate, but their tone and attitude was very aggressive in my opinion. American airline attendants are very friendly and firm with the mask rules, however not in a threatening way. I believe most people follow the rules regardless, but it seemed like Southwest was hoping for conflict during the flights.

  8. I always like and carefully read your travelogs, Brett. I’m taking my first flight in a year tomorrow (Alaska to Seattle). If you like, I will give you my (jaded- I love Alaska) opinions. Will return on Monday.

  9. I like the nice and sunny picture in the morning in long-beach and the area where you live.

    Thanks for that.

    1. Southbay – Well, I didn’t want to get into too many details, but one of my oldest and best friends suffered a tragedy. I waited through the surge until numbers were falling, but I just didn’t want to wait any longer to spend the day with him.

      1. Sorry to hear about that, Cranky. I was hoping that you had done the day trip to PHX for a positive reason, perhaps to catch a friend’s anniversary / birthday / retirement party.

        Hope you had some good time with your friend, even if it wasn’t in the best of circumstances. Now more than ever, loved ones matter.

        1. Thanks Kilroy. It ended up being a really good day. Quality time in person makes a big difference in the world!

  10. Thanks.

    A trip report without a comment about the condition of the aircraft’s windows, well, you never fail!

  11. Great report. Glad to see AA getting some love. Have not found them to be much trouble and pretty consistent overall. WN is another story. Not an airline to fly unless you absolutely have to.

  12. America West really hasn’t been around since September of 2008. That’s 12+ years ago – an eternity in the airline industry. Two mergers later, there are a lot of people who don’t remember the airline. I remember when it started with three aircraft and a dream. A number of my friends worked for America West and/or US Airways in Phoenix, and some are still with American. In the end, it was the only post-deregulation start-up airline that didn’t go out of business. And that’s a real tribute to Ed Beauvais and Mike Conway’s vision.

      1. Good point. I should have been clearer. I was referring to airlines that started immediately after deregulation. There was a huge wave of start-up airlines after 1978. America West, which started flying in 1983, is the only one of that first wave of start-ups that didn’t go out of business. Jet Blue started in 2000, long after that time. One has to give David Neeleman a lot of credit. He’s had a stellar record when it comes to starting new airlines.

        1. One other “minor” difference between AWA and B6 is that JetBlue has never gone bankrupt. Which brings me to a GREAT Ed Beauvais story. Ed was always battling Herb over the PHX market. When America West was staring a second bankruptcy squarely in the eyes, Ed claimed Herb was trying to put Cactus out of business. Herb’s response: “If I wanted to put them out of business, I would.” The rumor was that if America West failed a second time, they would be liquidated and, by some accounts, Northwest wanted to establish a hub in PHX. Herb wanted nothing to do with Northwest. Northwest’s carpet-bombing of low-fare competition was legendary and painfully effective. So it was determined to be in Southwest’s best interests to allow America West to limp along. It can be argued that Southwest made the right call as competing with American and its network in PHX today is preferable to fighting Delta and its network for the PHX market.

          1. One final America West trivia piece. There were only 30 737-100 aircraft ever built. That makes the 737-100 a rare passenger aircraft. The original buyers were: 1) Lufthansa: 22 planes and the world-wide 737 launch customer; 2) NASA: 1 plane; 3) Avianca: 2 planes; and 4) Malaysia-Singapore: 5 planes.

            Other than the NASA aircraft, the remaining 29 ships had “second lives” at other carriers. For example, 17 Lufthansa ships went to PeopleExress. The 2 Avianca planes were subsequently operated by Aloha and AirCal. Air Florida operated the 5 Malaysia/Singapore birds.

            But only ONE airline operated 737-100 aircraft from two of the original buyers. That airline was America West Airlines. They operated 3 original Lufthansa 737-130 aircraft and 2 original Malaysia/Singapore 737-112 aircraft. Of ALL the America West fleet trivia, this is the most remarkable.

            1. MissTheMasters – All good stuff about America West. That story about Herb would not surprise me one bit. It’s also probably why Sun Country still exists. Delta would rather compete against Sun Country than some more capable carrier, so it really doesn’t want to kill the airline. I have a personal love for Northwest’s shock and awe responses. They were downright brutal and took no prisoners. It was a thing to watch. I was on the team at America West that switched us to a low fare model. When we pulled the trigger in March 2002, we knew that we’d get a strong response from Northwest, and we had built that into our models. We knew it would still work. Of course, Northwest absolutely dropped the hammer on Phoenix with low walkups everywhere. I think they probably got a lot of traffic from America West employees who were more than happy to fill those seats for cheap! I miss those cold, calculated bastards. ;)

              As for the 737-100, oh there are so many interesting stories. Most of them were gone by the mid-1990s, but one ship, N708AW (msn 212) soldiered on until the new noise restrictions at the end of 1999 made it finally go to scrap. That airplane was delivered to Malaysia-Singapore Airlines in 1969, before the split. It made its way to America west in 1985. It was primarily kept in the fleet as the charter aircraft for the Suns, even being painted in an alternate livery with purple.
     This airplane was put in a very generous configuration during the season. I can’t remember the exact number, but it was something like 40 First Class seats and 20 coach. In the late 1990s, when it wasn’t carrying the Suns, it would go into service on Phoenix – Austin and Phoenix – San Jose. They’d sell those seats to tech execs, this being right before the bubble burst. It made some good money.
              Eventually, the Suns walked away. I was told that they wanted to upgrade to a better airplane, but they didn’t want to pay for a better airplane.
              (I remember hearing some story about a flight that had to cruise low due to pressurization problems, but I don’t know if that’s true.) In the end, they just got their own airplane. 708 reverted to a normal configuration that I think was 8 F/82 coach. That -100s were not big airplanes. It continued to fly in random places around the system. I flew it on a roundtrip to Tucson in summer of 1998 just to get on it before it was gone. I remember talking to the pilots on the ground in Tucson and one saying, “she flies a little bent, but she still flies.” For a long time it flew back and forth to LA on the off-peak flight times, including the late night run to LAX that arrived around midnight. That airplane was something else.

  13. I flew AA to MIA and PHX; JetBlue to FLL; Southwest to LAX, ONT, MDW, and DAL; and Frontier to PHX (multiple trips, different times, since November 2020). It was my first time ever flying AA, and I am old. The extra spiel at AA is right on (in addition to “We have no cabin space anymore; please check your bag in [and hurry]”). AA is on the slightly cleaner side. The others were also satisfactory. Frontier had the most spotless carpet and cleanest chairs. Frontier also sent out a survey specifically asking if everything on board was clean, including the seatbelts. I am a little surprised at the dirty carpet incident at Southwest; I didn’t see a dirty carpet on any of my flights. Further, on the Southwest flight en route to MDW, I had to remain on board. There were staff cleaning the trays and seats. Overall my experience is consistent with that of the author. Thanks for writing.

  14. Anecdotal stories of airplane cleanliness are exactly what they are — anecdotal. I’ve flown on dozens of airplane flights since the pandemic began — and rented dozens of cars and stayed in almost 100 hotel rooms — and cleanliness is, um, “variable.” Sometimes my AA aircraft are very clean and sometimes they look like that WN flight you flew on. Overall, I’d say travel companies are doing a SOMEWHAT better job at cleaning than they used to, but it’s by no means reliable. Honestly, if the virus frequently spread by surface contact, you probably wouldn’t be able to travel without being exposed to Covid. To me, the frustrating thing about travel and Covid is that there is no reliable information about the real risk factors. We seem to know that airplanes aren’t strong contributors to Covid cases but, for the past few months, there’s been zero new research on this topic. And we don’t even know how safe restaurants and other public places are. There is simply far more fear than facts, and “the authorities” don’t seem to mind it being that way.

  15. I have flown Southwest eight times since Covid-19 hit. Half SANSJC and half SANPHX. I don’t know if it is the competition from Alaska to SJC or SJC not being a major transfer hub, but they felt like very different experiences. The trips to SJC were pleasent, save SAN’s small and decrepit Terminal 1, with people spacing as much as possible at both ends. The last few flights to PHX were PACKED, and that included the gate areas in both directions. The passengers were different too. Last month I sat at the bulkhead to PHX and it was unsettling how many masks the flight attendants had to hand out due to valved masks, bandanas, or other non-compliant face coverings. I do know there were a fair number of onward connections on board, as they had to pull several people off due to cancellations of connections to San Antonio and Austin just before they closed the door. Three flights a day SANPHX, each direction, was nowhere near enough on this route last month. I didn’t notice how dirty the carpet was, but I did miss the days of a blocked middle seat!

  16. I am also taking my first AS flight on Sunday to SEA. Mind you it’s just PDX-SEA on a Q400 for Ramp Agent training for QX at PDX and back on a mainline AS flight back the next Friday. My only flying since the Pandemic has been only United and Boutique Air. Will be interesting to see how another airline like Alaska has been doing things since this COVID mess started.

  17. The WN emails are still going out as notice for the non-blocked middle seats. I’m surprised how many people still think it is being blocked nearly 3 months after it stopped. As for the cleaning, the extra cleaning is for Customer touch points etc. The crumbs on the floor will not be addressed until overnight cleaning as normal.

  18. You would be shocked at the cleanliness of the airplane after people deplane. They are terrible. People throw and discard everything on the floor or in the seat backs. People with children are the worst, IMHO, because they don’t cleanup after them and crush everything into the carpet as they try to satisfy the kids needs. But I digress. I love the wipes from the FA’s as it allows me and other passenger to clean in and around ourselves. I feel that the airplanes are more clean now than ever due to the passengers.

  19. Your WN flight was 99% full?? Wow! I hope they are successful with all these flights at LGB!

    My initial thought was WN wanted to do HNL from LGB, but HA beat them to the punch! Everyone thought I was crazy when I said WN would fly LGB to Hawaii from the LA Area. Here’s my next prediction….DL to Hawaii from LGB. It’s not so crazy. Remember, they still have lots of loyal Western customers from the 80’s. I wouldn’t be surprised to see DL enter the LGB Hawaii market with the slots they didn’t give back.

  20. The American Airlines plane was cleaner because airlines typically clean planes thoroughly overnight and that flight was probably the aircraft’s first of the day. By the time the author boarded the Southwest flight that evening the plane may have had 6 to 10 flights that day. A true comparison of cleanliness would have been between between round trips, morning and evening, on each airline. That way the cleanliness of both airlines could have been evaluated correctly and airport experiences between a small quiet commuter airport and very large and incredibly busy metropolitan airport be compared more accurately. The comparisons in the article were of apples and watermelons.

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