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So long, social distancing: Southwest Airlines resumes pre-pandemic boarding

Southwest Airlines has resumed its traditional boarding procedures, ditching a pandemic policy of boarding passengers in smaller groups to promote social distancing.

The nation's largest domestic carrier, which doesn't assign seats, began boarding passengers in groups of 30 on March 15. It had been boarding passengers in groups of 10 since it unveiled its "Southwest Promise'' health and safety protocols in May.

"The majority of our customers are familiar with Southwest’s standard boarding style and have an expectation for the normal boarding process as they return to travel,'' Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King said in a statement.

Travel, which has been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, is showing strong signs of life this month as more Americans are vaccinated and coronavirus case count trends improve in many areas of the country. U.S. airport passenger counts have topped 1 million a day for 12 consecutive days and 17 days total in March, according to Transportation Security Administration screening statistics. Passenger screenings, which topped 2 million a day before the pandemic, fell below 90,000 in April and did not top 1 million again until mid-October.

King noted that Southwest, like all airlines, continues to have "physical distancing" reminders at the airport and requires passengers to wear masks at the airport and on its planes.

The nation's largest domestic carrier is not the first airline to revert to pre-pandemic boarding procedures. In early March, JetBlue stopped boarding passengers from back to front and resumed its traditional boarding procedures by groups.

"We continue to work within public health guidelines and take clinical guidance from our own medical experts to ensure we are doing everything we can to keep our customers and crewmembers safe in this next phase of our 'new normal,''' JetBlue spokesman Derek Dombrowski said in a statement. "With these resources as our guides, we are returning to our grouped boarding process.''

United and Delta still have pandemic boarding policies in place. American Airlines never changed its boarding procedures.

The boarding changes follow most airlines' moves to stop blocking middle seats, a policy that was popular early in the pandemic. Southwest stopped blocking middle seats on Dec. 1.

Delta Air Lines is the only carrier still limiting seat sales in economy class, a policy in effect through April 30.

Social distancing has been a struggle for airlines during the pandemic and especially as travel has resumed, with crowds gathering at check-in, at the gate and in aircraft aisles despite reminders to spread out.

Deplaning has been particularly chaotic, with passengers standing up as soon as the plane parks at the gate.

This article originally appeared on USA Today

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