Southwest CEO: Travel won’t resume until places like Disney World reopen—

Southwest Airlines filled just 6 percent of its seats in April and doesn’t expect the figure to inch up past 10 percent in May.

“The traffic levels are next to zero at this point,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said in an interview on CNBC Tuesday.

So what will it take for passengers to return amid the coronavirus pandemic?

Travel attraction reopenings and new safety measures at the airport and on airplanes, Kelly said.

*I think a lot of things are going to have to happen for the country come back to life, much less air travel,” he said in an interview following the airline’s first quarter earnings report. “We and the federal government have a role to play in this.”

If people are going to travel again, Kelly said, “They need to have something to be able to do when they get there. So Disney World needs to open back up. Restaurants need to open back up.”

Travelers also need to feel safe, Kelly said. 

“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 said Southwest will encourage travelers to wear masks but stopped short of saying the airline will require masks, as JetBlue announced late Monday.

He also said the airline plans to offer passengers “PPE kits” but did not specify what would be in them or whether they will be free.

Kelly said the airline supports the idea of conducting health screening before customers before board a flight.

“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,” he said. “I think that that’s going to be very important.”

Like other airlines, Southwest also plans to space out passengers once they’re on the plane. The airline doesn’t assign seats so it can’t block middle seats as other carriers have done, but Kelly said travelers can assume that all middle seats will be open because the airline will limit ticket sales on 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.”

Southwest said in its earnings release that it expects “no material improvement” in air travel trends in the current quarter, which ends in June.

The airline said trip cancellations remain “at unprecedented levels” but said the rate of cancellations has eased.

In a video message to employees last week, Kelly told employees Southwest will become “drastically smaller” if business doesn’t dramatically improve by July.

Kelly’s comments echo those made last week by Delta CEO Ed Bastian. He said an airline recovery might take as long as three years.

Southwest also said: 

  • It has parked 350 planes of its nearly 750 planes.  That it is in addition to 34 Boeing 737 Max planes it parked in March 2019 when the FAA grounded the aircraft after two fatal accidents in less than six months.
  • The airline has raised $6.8 billion to boost its cash reserves since the pandemic began, giving it $9.3 billion in cash as of Friday.
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