SAN-TPA JUL 2019:

dipping a toe in the Southwest pool 

    America loves Southwest Airlines. A former boss of mine was the first person I knew eager to talk about her devotion. She loved the experience, their Rapid Rewards frequent-flier program. Great fares! No hidden fees! Two checked bags included! She was sold! 

    I, on the other hand, have long been suspicious. No seating assignments? Absolutely no shot at an upgrade? No European flights? No, not my kind of airline.

    Southwest is, however, just my mother's kinds of airline, for one simple reason: a nonstop option between her primary airport, Tampa, to the airport with the greatest concentration of family, San Diego. Living on three continents before she hit 18, Mom is no stranger to air travel. At 87, however, she's no fan of all the protocols that simply didn't exist once upon a time. Variables of age and annoyance eventually combined to keep her grounded. So sad, really, considering her regular July trip to San Diego to see kids, grandkids, siblings, nieces and nephews, etc. My brother and I figured she could find her wings again if we escorted her on this perfectly crafted nonstop, and reservations were made. 

    Outbound and return had great midday hours and amazing prices. Too good to be true? Yes. Probably this was due to the recent grounding of 737 Max planes, hugely affecting Southwest and American Airlines. Southwest advised that our original nonstop flights were now not. For Mom and my brother outbound, that meant delaying departure by a couple days to get them back on a nonstop. No problem! For my return-trip duty, however, there was no getting around the new itinerary. We'd be leaving San Diego around 6:20 a.m., with stops in Kansas City and Austin. At least we wouldn't be changing planes. Then again, there wouldn't be time to get off the plane, either. (Southwest would gladly issue a refund, but the competition couldn't touch their pricing.) Our roughly five-hour journey would now be about nine hours. Golly, I'd never been on a nine-hour flight with, essentially, nonexistent catering. Boarding at dawn, would we even have many options for stocking up at the airport? 

I'D NEVR BEEN ON A NINE-HOUR FLIGHT

WITH, ESSENTIALLY, NONEXISTENT CATERING

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Not our particular flight, but a Southwest Airlines plane pulling into TPA.

    Upon my arrival in San Diego to escort Mom back to Florida, the first bit of family news was that Mom had picked up a small cold, possibly on the flight out. "Oh, it was such a long flight," she griped. Certainly, I didn't want to remind her that the trip home would be about twice as long. Thanks, however, to my genius San Diego-based sister-in-law – a recently retired palliative care nurse – I had a bit of magic for the trip home: CBD oil. My SIL had suggested it to alleviate some of Mom's occasional anxiety. A phenomenal recommendation! 

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Stocking up for the return flight home – and beyond! 

    CBD oil was merely one consideration. Next, I secured a room by the airport to remove the option that any of my benevolent family – particularly the aforementioned sister-in-law – might insist on getting us to the airport around 4:30 in the morning. Then, on the eve of departure, it was off to Vons to handle catering. There were two considerations: What might Mom like? What's shelf-stable? The biggest risk I took was with some very, very processed "cheese." The salami was not refrigerated, so I wasn't going to lose sleep. Add to that some fruit and bread and we were in business. Thankfully, no reason to worry about beverages, as Southwest actually boasts a really extensive drinks menu. What liquids could I get through TSA anyway? 

   

    Soon after Vons, we checked into the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina, grabbed dinner, and set an alarm for 3 a.m. wakeup. While we were in the lobby by 4 a.m., that was too early for the hotel shuttle to the airport. Instead, I tried to pre-order a Lyft before going to bed. That morning, I was still waiting for confirmation, so I canceled and started over. That worked, and we were soon at San Diego International Airport, Terminal 1. Seemed we were just about the only ones there at that absurdly early hour. 

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Hello...? Hello...? Eerily quiet in the very wee hours at SAN. 

    While we were already checked-in, we still needed to hit the not-yet-opened Southwest counters to check bags and get a wheelchair for Mom. She's not particularly infirm, but the distances covered can sometimes be a bit daunting for many, not just octogenarians. Plus, the aforementioned annoyances. Really, if you're willing to be patient and wait for a chair escort, it seems everyone's happier. So much of the experience is just about managing people, and we're pretty manageable when we're being rolled around at an airline's discretion. The chair is also good for getting her through security. She got wheeled through security separately, but I figured I'd be right behind, thanks to my TSA Pre✓®. (Note: I've get the TSA clearance as part of my Global Entry clearance, which is only $15 more than TSA Pre alone. Now you know!) But it was even too early for a TSA line. So, long line and shoes off for me. 

    Really, it wasn't more than five minutes before we were both through security and on our way to the gate. There was even a generic coffee stand gearing up, so I was able to grab more caffeine. And buy Mom a sweater. And an orange. She got up to fill her water bottle herself. That unnerved me a little bit, in light of Southwest's borderline-anarchy boarding protocol. I'd paid extra to give us priority boarding, but the chair took care of that. That's why I didn't want a mob of suspicious Southwesties eyeing Mom walking around. "She can walk! No chair for her! No pre-boarding!" their thoughts screamed at me. I may not be an anxious traveler, specifically, but I'm plenty anxious, generally. 

I MAY NOT BE AN ANXIOUS TRAVELER, SPECIFICALLY,

BUT I'M PLENTY ANXIOUS, GENERALLY

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Arriving at Gate 11 as the airport begins to wake.

    About 30 minutes before boarding began, a gate agent approached us. Those in chairs, along with attendants like me, were to stand by the entrance to the jetway to pre-board. With Mom walking down the jetway, this could be considered a different sort of "walk of shame." At least, for me. Mom has no qualms about it. Zero f*cks. This means I never got to experience the genuine Southwest boarding experience. I've heard horror stories, particularly from my 6'4" brother-in-law, who, after paying to pre-board, had to face down an emergency-row passenger who advised him that he was "saving" the sole remaining ER seat for someone not yet boarded.

 

    But we, thankfully, boarded an empty plane. I had us sit in nearly the last row of this seemingly worn workhorse 737. We'd be least bothered by the Kansas City and Austin turnarounds being in the back, I reckoned. And, that much was true. On the longest of the legs, the first from SAN to MCI, we actually had three seats to ourselves. I can't imagine that would've been the case in the front half of the plane. No such luck on the second or final leg. 

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The view from the relatively calm rear of the plane, where the legroom is just as good as in the front, Southwest style.

    While I was fearful about how we'd pass our 9-hour trip, it was actually a breeze. With such an early departure, we both slept for much of the first leg. We broke out breakfast provisions a bit before Kansas City. The friendly staff was attentive with beverages and the occasional cookie/pretzel pak. I'd brought a mini iPad and noise-canceling earbuds for Mom, so she was able to take advantage of the free streaming entertainment with an age-appropriate screening of The Wife. A mid-flight dose of the CBD oil also seemed to be just what the doctor ordered to keep us relaxed and content. During the first leg, I also had control of the shade, allowing me to enjoy the view – my favorite part!  

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Breaking out breakfast. Plain doughnuts and oranges travel very well. But don't forget your antibacterial wipes, both for cleaning up the aftermath and wiping down the tray surface prior. 

A MID-FLIGHT DOSE OF THE CBD OIL

ALSO SEEMED TO BE JUST WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED

TO KEEP US RELAXED AND CONTENT

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Southwest has a special relationship with Community Coffee, making each sip that much smoother. During this flight, I had a special relationship with Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy, featured in Southwest's seasonal beverage lineup. 

    As the flight ended, I fully expected Mom to shout thanks that the trip was finally over. That's not what I got. Maybe it was the CBD oil. Maybe it was the grocery-store grab bag or Glenn Close's masterful performance. Whatever it was, she gave the day's journey a sincere thumbs up. "Well, that was a very nice flight." I'll take it! 

    I couldn't disagree. The price beat any competition. We were too well stocked with our carry-on provisions to feel deprived, particularly with the great selection of beverages to complement our Vons. The legroom wasn't unbearable. The cabin crew were personable and professional. The passengers seemed to do a good job of getting themselves seated. We were comfortable and arrived on time. I won't be making a habit of flying Southwest, but I would be comfortable choosing them again. And, should that happen, I will definitely pay extra for priority boarding. 

    One final note: Perhaps the Sky Gods noticed my virgin Southwest journey, as they deigned to clear my upgrade the next day, heading from Tampa back to DCA on American. That so rarely happens! Thank you, Sky Gods. 

Parting shots! As mentioned up the page, the views are just as good on Southwest. At least, until the window seat was occupied by people who preferred the shade down. But the scenery departing SAN and landing at MCI made my day. 

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