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We're Open For Business, Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly Says

NOEL KING, HOST:

COVID-19 has devastated the airline industry. On every domestic flight in the U.S. right now, there are, on average, 17 people. But one industry leader says it is time to fly again. Gary Kelly is the chairman and CEO of Southwest Airlines. He's on the line from Dallas. Good morning, sir.

GARY KELLY: Good morning. Great to be with you.

KING: Great to have you. We got some new predictions this week - projections, I should say. They predict that deaths will rise sharply as states start to reopen. Over the weekend, you said it is safe to fly again. What makes you think so?

KELLY: Well, first of all, you know, the federal government has deemed airline travel essential. So, you know, I guess, in theory, we have the option just to shut down like other businesses are doing and wait this out, but that's not what our country wants us to do. So we're flying, and we're open for business.

We're following all the CDC protocols, and I think that's extremely important. One thing that we're urging the TSA to do is to implement temperature screening at the checkpoint, as an example. But once you get into the airport, the airport is deep cleaned every night. We've got cleaning twice a day in the airport as well. We're putting up Plexiglas shields in front of all of our customer-facing employees. We're encouraging customers to print their boarding passes at home, as an example, to make the interaction as contact-free as possible. We're implementing physical distancing in the airport in the boarding process and the gate areas, as an example. And then once you get on the airplane, we're requiring masks, of course, of all of our employees. But also, we're requiring masks of customers. If they don't have a mask, we'll give them one. It's a surgical 3-ply mask with a vapor barrier.

And once you get on board the airplane, we won't book it full, so you'll be able to spread out. And, essentially, all middle seats would be open. But a lot of cleaning of the airplane, deep cleaning every night. We'll clean in between flights. And then once a month, we'll use an electrostatic spray, which puts out a antimicrobial mist, and it kills a virus on surfaces for up to 30 days.

So, finally, the air is circulated every couple of minutes in an airplane. It's hospital-quality, HEPA filtered. So it's a very safe environment. And for those who want or need to fly, we want to be there for them.

KING: And you would risk the airline's reputation on that - that no one will take a Southwest flight and get sick?

KELLY: Nobody can do that - of course, not. You know, and no business in the world can say that. And that's not what's been happening. But I think we're living in an environment where we know there's a pandemic. It requires extra precautions. We're following CDC guidelines, and we're providing an essential service.

KING: Southwest has taken $3.2 billion in federal aid. Let me ask you how the airline has spent that money, and will that be enough for you to survive?

KELLY: That money is specifically earmarked for employment. And so our payroll is far higher than 3.2 billion, but that guarantees that we won't furlough any employees, we won't cut any pay rates through September the 30. And, again, that - the 3.2 billion won't cover our payroll, but it's specifically earmarked for that. The other thing to know is that 30% of that is in the form of a loan, and that will be repaid.

KING: OK. So Southwest employees, just very quickly, are still getting paid?

KELLY: Yes. Yeah, absolutely. No one's been furloughed. We've never had a furlough in our history. We've never had a pay cut in our history. Very proud of what our people are doing. And, quite frankly, they're front-line heroes.

KING: Some good news. Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, thanks for your time.

KELLY: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.