Southwest: No linens for 2009

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The swine flu prompted Southwest Airlines to do major spring cleaning.

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The swine flu prompted Southwest Airlines to do major spring cleaning.

The discount carrier, which has offered free pillows and blankets to its passengers, threw away every shred of linen on its 539 jets on April 29.

“We recently removed blankets and pillows from the aircraft in the last month or so, when the concerns about the swine flu came up,” said Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz at the airline’s Dallas headquarters. “We took them out thinking we would replace them.”

Board a Southwest flight anytime soon, and you will see that the thinking changed.

“We find that customers are enjoying the extra overhead bin space, and there are not a lot of requests for blankets in the hot summer months,” Mainz said.

Also, Southwest’s accountants are enjoying extra cash on the balance sheet.

The savings partly come from quicker cleanups of cabins that allow for faster turnarounds between flights. Plus, linens add weight to the aircraft. Their removal lightens planes’ loads, which translates into slightly increased fuel efficiencies. Spread out over the entire fleet, those incremental fuel savings add up, Mainz said.

There’s also the avoidance of the large lump sum purchase of all new blankets and pillows, instead of the gradual replacement process that most airlines use to weed out torn and worn coverings.

No linens for 2009

Mainz declined to quantify the savings, information the airline deems proprietary.

He said Southwest plans to keep blankets and pillows out of its cabins for the rest of this year but hasn’t made a decision whether to provide them after that, or whether to charge passengers for them.

Southwest’s actions went beyond swine flu protocols for airlines suggested by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

Swine flu, also known as the H1N1 virus, passes from person to person through droplets expelled in sneezes and coughs.

Health officials did not ask U.S. airlines to change their cleaning procedures or linen policies as the epidemic spread, but Southwest’s decision drew praise from the Association of Flight Attendants.

“Blankets are not replaced on a flight basis or even a daily basis,” said Bill McGlashen, assistant to the association’s international president.

“Those blankets have frequent-flier miles on them, to say the least,” he said. “A lot of us wear gloves to handle the blankets and pillows because we notice quite a few stains on them.”

Houston-based Continental Airlines and Fort Worth-based American Airlines fold blankets after each domestic flight and return them to storage bins, unless they appear soiled.

On international flights, the carriers provide free, laundered blankets in plastic packages.

Other airline policies

McGlashen would prefer that all passengers, domestic and international, be offered new or cleaned blankets and pillows wrapped in plastic. Airlines that offer such packages on domestic flights typically charge a fee.

“We sell our power nap sacks, which customers then own and can take off the plane and reuse on their travels,” said US Airways spokeswoman Valerie Wunder.

That’s fine with McGlashen, as long as airlines give flight attendants the discretion to give out complimentary sets to cold passengers without the cash or credit cards to buy a set.

“You want to have some customer options on board that help you to solve problems instead of saying, ‘We’re out’ or ‘We just don’t have those,’ ” he said. “If we just have enough tools to do our jobs, we can reduce customer complaints and make it a better flight.”

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