Southwest is rolling back its COVID-19 cleaning protocols to speed up plane turnaround times, even as the pandemic continues to spread

Despite the cuts to cleaning efforts between flights, Southwest said it will continue blocking middle seats on aircraft to enable a degree of social distancing on board.

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Southwest Airlines will cut back on the cleaning procedures it introduced because of the coronavirus pandemic, even as cases continue to climb in some parts of the country.

The airline will stop cleaning seatbelts between flights, focusing on tray tables and lavatories instead.

The point is to reduce the time planes spend on the ground between flights — a key metric in an industry with thin profit margins.

The good news: Southwest will still deep-clean its planes every night, and will continue to block middle seats through October 31. It also provides disinfectant wipes on request.

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Southwest Airlines is scaling back some of the cabin cleaning procedures it implemented in March to limit the spread of COVID-19, in what appears to be an effort to limit the time its jets spend on the ground between flights.  

The airline will no longer clean seatbelts in between each flight, CNN reported, citing a memo to flight attendants.  Cleaners will still sanitize tray tables and lavatories in between flights, and continue to deep-clean aircraft overnight.

Southwest said that the change was necessary as the airline begins to see flight schedules return to normal. “Since flight schedules have increased, other areas of the aircraft will be disinfected during our overnight cleaning process,” an airline spokesperson told CNN. 

In an email to Business Insider, a Southwest spokesperson noted that the airline provides passengers with disinfectant wipes upon request, so anyone who wants to do an extra cleaning can do so.

Southwest’s business model relies on quick turnaround times between flights, sometimes as little as 30 minutes. By maximizing in-flight time, the airline can squeeze the most performance from each plane, keeping costs and fares lower.

In May, Shashank Nigam, CEO of airline marketing firm SimpliFlying, predicted that heightened cleaning procedures and a need to reassure passengers of onboard safety would eventually clash with the realities of running a low-cost airline.

Story continues

“The 30-minute turn is critical, especially for low-cost airlines like Spirit and Southwest, and they’ll do everything they can to ensure that they don’t slip from that,” he told Business Insider during an interview.

“I foresee legacy airlines like Delta and Air Canada using this as a brand differentiator,” he added. “The low-cost airlines, to preserve their 30-minute turnaround, will need to do a lot of these deep cleaning efforts overnight, as opposed to every single flight.”

Notably, despite the cuts to cleaning efforts between flights, Southwest said it will continue blocking middle seats on aircraft to enable a degree of social distancing on board.

Recently released data show that passengers are willing to pay 16-17% more to fly on an airline that facilitates social distancing. Delta, which also blocks middle seats, said that customers have cited that as their top reason for choosing the airline in recent surveys.

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