Flying for the holidays? Here’s what you can expect

TULSA, Okla. — People still flying during the COVID-19 pandemic are finding themselves having to adhere to strict mask policies on board all airlines.

In a FOX23 Investigation, FOX23 wore hidden cameras and used cellphones to get an idea of what flying on an airplane right now is like.

FOX23 bought a ticket on an American Airlines and Southwest Airlines flight to compare two airlines on the same day. We did not reach out to airlines to ask them to do a story about their safety precautions because we wanted to see what an average day looked like, and we didn’t want them to prepare beforehand and put their best foot forward in anticipation of us flying.

The itinerary for this investigation was to take a busy early morning flight on American Airlines from Tulsa to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport -- an American Airlines hub. After arriving at DFW, we took a rideshare over to Dallas Love Field -- a Southwest Airlines hub -- to catch a return flight home.

Boarding American Airlines

On American Airlines, FOX23 saw self-service kiosks offline which made for a longer than usual check-in time. Passengers had to be checked in one-by-one so they could attest to not having COVID-19 or even feeling sick. That attestation is part of a legal procedure that the airline requires before you receive your boarding pass.

We also witnessed crowding at the gate area, in the jet bridge itself getting to the plane, a full flight, and a modified safety announcement that included the warning to passengers that if they took their mask off during the flight, they could be banned from the airline for life.

Airlines are not making vague threats when they make these announcements. Delta Air Lines announced this fall it’s banned more than five hundred people for not complying with their mask requirements while on board.

Boarding Southwest Airlines

On Southwest Airlines, FOX23 saw a normal check-in process. However, during check-in at the self-service kiosk, passengers must legally attest they are not feeling sick or have COVID-19. The changes in services for Southwest were seen on board and at the gate.

Southwest boards passengers by group. Before the pandemic, it was thirty people boarding at a time, but they’ve cut that group-boarding process down to ten people at a time, and they must line up on socially distanced dots marked on the floor.

At the gate, the announcement telling people to keep their masks on at all times was made. There was still no social distancing, and clogging up on the jet bridge to the plane, but at the time FOX23 flew, Southwest required the middle seat to be opened to allow for social distancing on board.

The same day FOX23 flew Southwest, the airline announced to its shareholders, it was going to open up the middle seat again starting in December just in time for the holiday travel season because the decision to keep the middle seat open was hindering the airline’s ability to make money off of flights.

What’s it like inside the plane?

On both American and Southwest, inflight beverage service did not take place. Airlines announced at the beginning of the pandemic that beverage service encouraged people to take their masks off in flight, and they did not want flight attendants to have to come in contact with something that was next to a passenger’s nose or mouth possibly exposing them to COVID-19.

FOX23 discovered a claim by Southwest Airlines when it comes to cabin air filtration isn’t actually a new feature, but it is the standard operating procedure. Southwest boasts on its website that the cabin has new air circulating in it every two to three minutes, but when you look at how an air conditioner works on a plane, new air coming in and old air being expelled it a standard process the air conditioner goes through as part of its operation. The air that is recirculated does go through a strong filter now, however.\

Added security

We did not get to fly on United, Delta, Allegiant, or Frontier, but there are similar procedures in place. We did note that in the terminal, Delta Air Lines was the only airline that put stickers on their chairs at the gate closing off certain seats in the terminal waiting area. This encouraged social distancing among passengers waiting to board a flight.

Security for any flight is still standard except passengers are now asked to scan their own tickets in front of the TSA agent and then pull their mask down to reveal their full face matches their photo ID.

Back in October, United Airlines and the Department of Defense released a study on aircraft air circulation that said masks were a proven way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on a plane with recirculated air. The study used manikin heads attached to a machine that simulates breaking. Heads were both masked and unmasked. Critics of the survey said the results show if you sit in your seat and don’t get up to use the bathroom or talk to someone else, you’ll be fine, but if you do more than just sit there, the study did not show any information about a possible change in the threat to your health.

One woman died of COVID-19 on a Spirit Airlines flight last summer between DFW and Las Vegas, but the official report on her death released to the public in October showed she did not catch COVID on the plane and instantly die, but rather, she got on board the plane showing signs that she was already sick and died on board from the virus that was already advanced and moving through her body.