(Updated May 21, 2020, 6:10 P.M., with addition of Qatar Airways news)
With the Memorial Day weekend approaching, U.S. airlines are making a bid to recapture business by emphasizing extensive hygiene protocols and practices designed to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission.
And European authorities issued guidance Wednesday to assure the health safety of air travelers and aviation personnel once quarantines ease and airlines resume flying.
There is renewed hope that pent-up demand for travel will spur new bookings, but industry officials know they must ease fears that airports and airplanes are vectors for infection at a time when there is no vaccine for a COVID disease that has claimed more than 323,000 lives worldwide.
More aircraft back in the sky will also help shippers and logistics companies that now face capacity shortages for moving goods after most passenger flights, which carry more than 60% of global air cargo, were suspended.
Industry group Airlines for America (A4A) launched an online and social media public awareness campaign called “Fly Healthy. Fly Smart” to showcase the deep-cleaning and social-distancing changes U.S. airlines are implementing as well as remind travelers of steps they can take to keep themselves and others safe.
“The safety and well-being of passengers and employees is the top priority of U.S. airlines. Since the onset of this health crisis, carriers have been taking substantial, proactive steps — in many instances exceeding CDC guidance — to protect passengers and employees,” said A4A President Nicholas E. Calio in a statement. “U.S. airlines are coming together as an industry to deepen their commitment to instituting multiple layers of protection throughout the travel experience — from check-in to touchdown.”
The COVID-19 outbreak has decimated passenger business, with 3,000 planes — more than half the domestic fleet — grounded. Airlines are eyeing a slow recovery that could take three years, or more, to return to the revenue levels of 2019.
Mileage cards and cargo-only passenger flights are the biggest sources of revenue now for passenger airlines. The Transportation Security Administration is screening about 91% fewer people than at the same time last year, and airlines are averaging 31 people per flight.
Although news has focused on full flights where social distancing was impossible, the A4A released data showing that 73% of flights are less than 50% full and only 8.5% of flights are more than 70% full.
Airlines are attempting to leave some seats open when feasible. Some notify customers when filled seats reach 60% and allow them to change their reservation.
On Wednesday, JetBlue (NASDAQ: JBLU) announced it will extend through the July Fourth holiday its commitment to block middle seats in rows where parties are not traveling together. The policy comes as the airline is also set to roll out temperature monitoring for in-flight crew members and electrostatic fogging in June.
And United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) said it is teaming up with Clorox and the world-famous Cleveland Clinic to develop cleanliness standards and health protocols for protecting customers The CleanPlus program covers cleaning, safety and social distancing, with steps such as touch-less kiosks in select locations for baggage check-in and use of Clorox wipes and disinfectants at hub airports. The Cleveland Clinic will advise on new technologies, training development and quality assurance.
Innovations being tested include UV sanitation deployed by drones and hand-held wands, as well as an antimicrobial shield, for airport and aircraft surfaces, and artificial intelligence that can assist with temperature screenings and crowd detection.
New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority is also testing ultra-violet lights to zap the coronavirus on buses and trains, with disinfecting taking place after operating hours.
“Safety has always been our top priority, and right now in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, it’s our singular customer focus,” said United CEO Scott Kirby in a video message to customers. “We recognize that COVID-19 has brought cleanliness and hygiene standards to the front of customers’ minds when making travel decisions, and we’re not leaving a single stone unturned in our pursuit to better protect our customers and employees.”
Delta Air Lines on Tuesday said its Delta Flight Products subsidiary is manufacturing 150 plexiglass safety barriers per day for airport check-in desks, departure gates and Sky Club counters, with installation to be completed at hub airports by June 1, then all U.S. and international locations in the following weeks.
After complaints from flight attendants and other employees, U.S. airlines are now requiring passengers and customer-facing employees to wear face coverings during check-in, boarding, flying and deplaning. Airlines are also busy sanitizing counters and kiosks, marking floors to ensure appropriate distance is maintained in lines, providing hand sanitizer, and cleaning cockpits, cabins and key touch points such as seatbelts, buttons, armrests and lavatories with EPA-approved disinfectants. They have also increased the frequency of deep cleaning and adjusted food and beverage services to minimize contact.
Some pilots have complained that their employers are not using approved disinfectants and not notifying them when someone they’ve been in contact with tests positive for coronavirus.
Outside the U.S., Qatar Airways has gone a step further by requiring cabin crew to wear full-body protective suits over their uniforms, in addition to safety goggles, gloves and masks.
Europe’s health safety protocols
Meanwhile, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Center for Disease Prevention and Control issued a document defining health protections for every stage of the passenger journey, with built-in flexibility to account for differences among airports, airlines and aircraft. A separate section focuses on the safety of flight crew members.
The recommendations call for terminal infrastructure, such as baggage drop and claim areas, and at security, to be optimized to prevent wait lines, and enhanced cleaning in the airport and aircraft.
“This protocol is the blueprint for safe air travel, from the moment of arrival at the departure airport right through to leaving the airport at the destination,” EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky said .
Airlines and airport operators were encouraged to adapt the guidelines to their individual facilities and operations.
The agencies said they will update the guidelines as new epidemiological information, testing and treatment options become available.
Passengers themselves are also expected to avoid flying when sick, practice distancing and hand hygiene, use face masks and declare their COVID-19 status before receiving their boarding pass. Passengers will also be asked to provide contact information to allow for “track and trace” if someone on a particular flight later tests positive for COVID-19.
The International Air Transport Association cautioned the guidelines will only be effective if all European states follow through with them.
“It is absolutely essential that all European states apply these guidelines in a harmonized and mutually recognized way. Local deviations and exceptions will damage public confidence and make it harder to operate effectively,” Rafael Schvartzman, IATA’s regional vice president for Europe, said in a statement. “This would be harmful to public health and the economic recovery. IATA will support states to implement these guidelines in the fastest and most efficient way.”