With 85 percent of all Americans now under stay-at-home orders and the government advising against all nonessential travel, far fewer people are flying and those flying are doing so because they have to.
In fact, the latest airline data show that passenger volumes have fallen as much as 93 percent. For those still flying, however, here are the steps that airlines are taking to make it safer for passengers and crew.
More frequent disinfection routines
“All airlines are now wiping down touch points in planes between flights. This includes everything from the toilets, to overhead bins, air knobs, flight attendant buttons.” said Charles Leocha, President and Founder of Travelers United, a travel advocacy organization based in Washington, DC. “The cleanliness of planes has probably never been better.”
Disinfection has been the focal point of many of the changes, with American, United, Delta, Alaska, Southwest, and many others introducing enhanced cleaning procedures between flights and overnight, that follow or exceed new guidelines announced by the Centers for Disease Control.
Delta’s fogging process
Delta has led the way in taking disinfection one step further, adding fogging to all domestic flights as of April 1. The process, which Delta had introduced on international flights in February, uses a fog machine to spray an aerosol-based high-grade disinfectant that coats all surfaces in the cabin, including the ceiling, floors, seats, trays, lavatories, galleys, and crew areas.
“The disinfectant sticks to surfaces as soon as it’s applied,” Azeem Mistry, Delta’s director of Airport Operations, Atlanta, explained in a demonstration video. “This same disinfectant is used in restaurants and hospitals across the country.”
High-efficiency air filtrations systems
Almost all modern planes are now equipped with HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filtration systems — much like those used in hospitals — which remove up to 99.97 percent of airborne particles.
Alaska, JetBlue, Southwest, and Hawaiian are among those that state that all its planes have HEPA filtration. Other airlines, such as United and American state the filters are present on most of their planes.
Bipolar ionization technology
Bipolar ionization technology from AtmosAir is now being installed in the HVAC systems of some airports. This technology neutralizes viruses such as coronavirus and other contaminants in the air and on surfaces.
The AtmosAir systems are up and working in terminals at Los Angeles International Airport, Chicago/O’Hare, New York’s LaGuardia, Minneapolis, San Francisco International Airport, Vancouver, Fort Lauderdale, Charlotte, and Anchorage.
“While AtmosAir’s bipolar ionization won’t completely eliminate coronavirus that can spread from passengers or airline and airport employees coughing, sneezing and or coming in close contacts or touching, it will kill the virus in the air and on surfaces such as ticket counters, restaurant tables or sinks in bathrooms,” said Dr. Philip M. Tierno, Professor of Microbiology and Pathology at New York University School of Medicine.
Switching seats for social distance
No matter how well airlines filter the air and disinfect surfaces, one of the most important steps passengers can take to protect themselves is to practice social distancing, keeping at least six feet — and preferably more — between themselves and fellow passengers.
Airlines are making that much easier by allowing passengers to switch seats based on distance, either by making seat changes at the gate, or simply announcing that passengers may choose their own seats.
For example, in a social-distancing advisory, Alaska Airlines stated that when passenger numbers prevent social distancing, passengers will be aided in rebooking to an emptier flight.
And American Airlines said that it’s blocking 50% of middle seats so that passengers likely won’t be sitting right next to someone.
Changes to foodservice
Foodservice has also undergone drastic changes. Alaska Airlines has eliminated all food and beverage service on flights shorter than 250 miles.
Airlines that still serve meals on flights only offer pre-packaged meals, snacks, and beverages, served by gloved flight attendants who hand them directly to passengers. And drink glasses are not refilled but replaced.
Flying while sick
In response to the current outbreak, airlines like Delta, American, Southwest, JetBlue, and Alaska, have instituted flexible policies that allow passengers who are beginning to feel sick to cancel or reschedule their flights.
However, these are being announced as exceptions to the airlines’ usual rules, which do not allow illness as a reason for no-fee ticket changes or cancellations unless the ticket is fully refundable. When these COVID-19-related flexible change cancellation policies run out, the airlines have not given any indication that they will change their long-term policies.
“According to airlines rules, in effect today, and the airlines’ contracts of carriage, sick people must fly or pay a change fee,” said Leocha. “Of course, they have made exceptions for the current short period, but airlines plan on returning to their sick-must-fly rules as soon as possible. The best thing that the airlines can do to protect passenger and crew safety is change their sick passenger rules.”
Some airlines, including Delta, JetBlue, and Hawaiian are passing out disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizer and other products to passengers boarding planes or making them available at kiosks.
Unfortunately, the practice isn’t consistent among airlines, so passengers shouldn’t count on it. “Some airlines are passing out disinfectants. Some are not. No good reports here on who is and who is not,” said Leocha.
United has a section of its website that provides detailed information for every step of the flying process, as does JetBlue.
American Airlines presents passengers with a video in which Kurt Stach, Senior Vice President of Customer Experience, describes the safety steps the airline has taken.
Airlines are also communicating their cleaning processes much more clearly to customers, sending out announcements detailing 19-point (Delta), 30-point (American) and other cleaning checklists.
Turkish Airlines’ coronavirus advisement goes even further, detailing health screening procedures including medical examinations for flight crew, the installation of 11 border crossing health checkpoints at Istanbul Airport, and the presence of thermal cameras to detect fever. Speaking of thermal cameras, they are a frequent presence in many international airports including Singapore, but are not yet common in the US.