Preboarding screenings and new cleaning procedures: How US airlines are working to keep flyers healthy
As governments tentatively explore the mechanics of emerging from months of shelter-in-place rules because of the global coronavirus pandemic, many travelers are asking, "When will we be able to leave our homes?" And with no vaccine available to protect against COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, travelers are also asking: "How will we ever feel comfortable flying again?"
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As first steps, the major U.S. airlines have amped up their regular cleaning procedures and safety measures. Each airline, however, is adapting a little differently and the situation remains fluid, with policies changing daily.
Here's a look at some of what the future of flying could look like and what the airlines are doing:
Possible changes to passenger health screening
COVID-19 cases in the U.S. continue to increase, but officials in some states have seen rates decreasing, a sign that we are getting closer to "flattening the curve." With no vaccine available, precautionary measures are needed if we want to attempt to return to "normal." For instance, major airlines have been discussing the possibility of conducting temperature checks on passengers prior to boarding flights, a strategy China has adopted for many public spaces. UAE-based Etihad has already begun testing new technology that would screen passengers for dangerous medical conditions like COVID-19 by monitoring their temperatures, heart rates and respiratory rates. However, many people with COVID-19 have been asymptomatic, so these readings aren't always useful.
Recently, Emirates became the first airline to begin testing passengers for COVID-19 before they depart from its Dubai (DXB) hub. The airline is using a blood test that provides results in as little as 10 minutes. Once tested, passengers are given a certificate with the results, which some countries are now requiring for entry.
Although this is certainly a more conclusive method than temperature checks, it is more invasive and it's unclear if U.S.-based airlines will implement the same strategy.
To stay up to date on how coronavirus is impacting the travel industry, head to TPG's coronavirus hub page.
In the U.S., Frontier Airlines recently implemented a program that requires passengers to accept a health acknowledgement prior to completing check-in via website or app. This is the first we've heard of any U.S. airline instituting its own health-screening check. This isn't the most effective screening, but it's a start and we'll wait to see if other U.S. airlines will follow suit.
There also have been discussions about using antibody testing to determine if travelers have been exposed to -- and are possibly resistant to -- the coronavirus.
How airlines are keeping planes clean
What about disinfecting and sanitation? This has been a hot topic throughout the coronavirus pandemic, leading to high demand for household cleaning products, hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes, and to an emphasis on doing more to keep public spaces clean.
Prior to worldwide travel bans and the announcement of a Level 4 travel advisory by the U.S. State Department, many passengers flew cautiously, wiping down their seats, tray tables, and windows. Meanwhile, airlines ramped up cleaning procedures, even as travel dropped off.
The challenge is to figure out how to assure passengers that the planes are both clean and safe.
TPG looked at the current cleaning procedures of each U.S. airline and found that the carriers have increased the frequency and depth of their cleaning procedures in compliance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control. The airlines also support social-distancing guidelines and some have taken the step to block off middle seats. Delta and Frontier are the only ones to enforce back-to-front boarding to reduce contact among passengers.
In general, flight demand has been low across the U.S., although there are some recent reports of overcrowded planes because so many flights have been canceled. This has raised safety concerns among travelers and airline workers. Further, the Association of Flight Attendants called on the U.S. Department of Transportation to make face masks/coverings a requirement for passengers. So far, AA, Delta, United, JetBlue and Frontier are requiring face masks for employees, but only JetBlue has explicitly extended the requirement to passengers as well.
Related: Airlines add new rules as a call for masks on planes gets louder
There are other discrepancies in airline procedures. For instance, Delta, American, Frontier and Spirit are the only airlines which have announced that they will be fogging the aircraft every night. United said that it would use electrostatic sprayers to disinfect wide-body aircraft arriving from international destinations, but there's no word on whether this will be implemented on domestic flights.
Electrostatic spraying "delivers charged droplets that are actively attracted to surfaces, including the back sides and crevices of surfaces regardless of the direction of spray for complete wrap-around disinfection coverage," according to EFS Clean, the company that makes the sprays. Fogging, on the other hand, "uses a high-grade, EPA-registered disinfectant and virucide that is highly effective against many communicable diseases, including coronaviruses," said Delta in statement on March 10, 2020.
Frontier is the only airline that is requiring passengers to submit a health acknowledgement prior to check-in. Allegiant requires guests to "acknowledge that they are free of contagious illness ... advocat[ing] that passengers undergo some kind of health screening at the security checkpoint before they fly." That process isn't totally clear, but Frontier and Allegiant remain the only two airlines that are requiring some sort of self-screening by passengers.
Here's what each airline is doing in response to health concerns from the pandemic:
Alaska is supporting social distancing by capping first-class seat sales at 50%, and blocking all middle seats on large aircraft and all aisle seats on small aircraft through May 31, 2020.
Alaska employees and passengers are encouraged (but not required) to wear face masks.
The airline has enhanced its cleaning between flights but is still evaluating its cleaning procedures. Inflight entertainment has been removed from all flights except for those to Hawaii and Florida, where tablet usage is the highest.
Alaska is asking that passengers only use germ-killing wipes on armrests and tray tables, because they could deteriorate the top coat of its leather seats.
Allegiant is also observing social-distancing practices, encouraging guests not to book middle seats unless they are a family.
The airline hasn't made any changes to its boarding procedure, but an Allegiant representative said, "The current environment surrounding travel is an ongoing, fluid situation. But Allegiant has always been a flexible, nimble company. We’re committed to continuously enhancing our services and developing new ways to better serve our customers."
Here's a look at Allegiant's cleaning procedure:
- Allegiant has begun using an advanced protectant solution, which creates a microscopic film shown to kill any virus, germ or bacteria coming into contact with a treated surface.
- Regularly scheduled cleaning as well as deep-clean procedures are taking place.
- All aircraft are stocked with wipes available to customers by request.
As for self-screening, Allegiant is asking passengers to "acknowledge that they are free of contagious illness. We would advocate that passengers undergo some kind of health screening at the security checkpoint before they fly."
American Airlines is allowing customers to move within their ticketed cabin so long as there are no weight or balance restrictions. AA has blocked off 50% of its standard middle seats and all seats adjacent to flight attendant jump seats. Inflight service has also been canceled.
Recently, AA announced that it would require flight attendants wear face masks and will start to pass them out to passengers.
As for cleaning, AA says that it's committed to exceeding CDC guidelines.
Here's a look at AA's aircraft-cleaning procedure:
- International flights and aircraft with additional time on the ground receive a detailed 30-point cleaning package each day. All of its aircraft also undergo a deep cleaning procedure on a regularly scheduled basis.
- Aircraft for international flights and planes that remain overnight at an airport (the majority of aircraft each day) will get a more thorough cleaning of all hard surfaces, including tray tables and armrests.
- AA has increased its aircraft fogging treatments during scheduled overnight cleanings to thoroughly disinfect all public areas — both hard and soft surfaces — including:
- Seats (on and below)
- Seat belts
- Carpets and floors
- Window shades
- Lavatories (toilets, sinks, counters, walls, floors)
- Galleys and all surfaces within
- Overhead bins (inside and out)
- Tray tables
- Inflight entertainment screens
- Passenger service units, including light and air conditioning controls
Hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes will be provided for crew members on all flights departing hubs and AA is working to expand this measure to all flights in the near future.
On April 10, 2020, Delta announced that it would be implementing a back-to-front boarding procedure until at least the end of June to help customers follow social-distancing guidelines. Additionally, the airline has temporarily blocked off all middle seats, suspended advanced complimentary upgrades and reduced the number of passengers per flight.
Delta flight attendants will also be required to wear face masks as a precautionary measure, but there have been no changes to passenger protocol.
Here's the outline of the new "Delta Clean" standard:
- All domestic aircraft will undergo the same interior fogging overnight that Delta has been using to disinfect international aircraft in the U.S. since February 2020.
- Before every flight, aircraft will be cleaned using the same extensive checklist used during overnight cleanings. This includes disinfecting high-touch areas such as tray tables, seatback entertainment screens, arm rests and seatback pockets.
- Spot checks will take place before each flight by a customer service agent and a flight leader to ensure the aircraft is up to the Delta Clean standard. The team can resolve any issues immediately, and is empowered to request a cleaning crew return to the aircraft for additional work as needed.
Starting in early May 2020, all aircraft in Delta's network will be fogged before every flight.
Passengers can also expect to see more hand sanitizer at various touch points as well as workers disinfecting surfaces around the airport.
Delta did not say whether the back-to-front boarding procedure will continue after the end of June.
In an effort to support social distancing for those who need to travel now through the first week of May 2020, Frontier has blocked off every other row on its aircraft. It has also adopted back-to-front boarding temporarily, but plans to re-evaluate whether this should continue as the coronavirus situation evolves. The airline was one of the first to require that all employees wear masks and encouraging, but not requiring, passengers to do the same.
Frontier also recently implemented its new program that requires passengers to accept a health acknowledgement prior to completing check-in via website or app. Passengers are required to certify that:
- Neither they nor anyone in their household has exhibited COVID19-related symptoms in the last 14 days
- They will check their temperature before heading to the airport and not travel if they have a fever
- They will wash their hands/sanitize before boarding the flight
Crew members are required to accept this same acknowledgement.
Here's a look at Frontier's cleaning procedures:
- Frontier has begun fogging its aircraft and wiping them down every night with the same disinfectant used for the fogging.
- Long-standing aircraft cleaning procedures will be increased and a thorough cleaning of customer touchpoints will occur between flights and overnight, along with the regular fogging treatments.
"We recognize that as demand gradually increases, customers will have new expectations and we are prepared to adapt to the new normal. We’re building awareness of our health practices through our website, mobile application and social media pages and will continue to supply information through various customer touchpoints," a Frontier representative said.
JetBlue was one of the first U.S. airlines to require that crew members wear masks and just recently extended the same rule to passengers.
In addition, JetBlue has limited the number of seats available for purchase, allowing for more space between customers. Crew members will continue to review seat assignments to comply with social-distancing guidelines to protect both travelers and crew members.
So far, no adjustments have been made to its boarding process, though this could change when demand returns.
Here's a look a JetBlue's cleaning procedure:
- Increased aircraft cleaning each night and during extended ground time. This includes applying disinfectant that is effective against coronavirus across aircraft interiors, including the places customers touch most – tray tables, seat covers, armrests and seat belts. During longer aircraft turns, crews will perform similar cleanings between flights.
- All JetBlue aircraft are equipped with hospital-grade HEPA filters, which recirculate the air on board so, on average, all air in the cabin is changed every three minutes.
JetBlue said it has a team monitoring the situation daily "to determine if additional steps should be taken and how our inflight experience will evolve as restrictions are loosened and demand picks back up."
Southwest has always allowed passengers to choose their own seats, and with demand low passengers are encouraged to socially distance themselves and spread out. The airline is also considering selling fewer seats to allow for more social distancing, but no official changes have been made yet.
Southwest employees and passengers are encouraged to wear face masks, but are not required to.
As for cleaning, Southwest has also ramped up its procedures. For instance, the airline has upgraded its disinfectant to an EPA-approved, hospital-grade disinfectant. Here's a full look:
- Expanded use of EPA-approved, hospital-grade disinfectant to clean high-touch areas such as interior windows and shades, seat-belt buckles, passenger service units (i.e., reading lights and vents), seat surfaces, tray tables, armrests, etc.
- Each restroom will receive more attention, from the surfaces to ceiling panels
Spirit is supporting social distancing by blocking off middle seats on all domestic flights when possible, depending on demand and weight and balance issues. Spirit is also capping the number of passengers and blocking off middle seats sold on humanitarian flights which so far, have included flights to Colombia, Aruba, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Panama and Honduras.
There has been no word on whether Spirit employees and passengers will be asked to wear face masks.
Here's a look at Spirit's cleaning procedure:
- Spirit has begun fogging aircraft.
- Expanded aircraft cleaning protocols, with extra focus on high-frequency touch points like handles, seat-belt buckles, tray tables and armrests
- Enhanced cleaning between flights
- Increased stock of onboard supply kits for inflight crews and sending additional cleaning chemical supplies to the airports it serves
- Electrostatic sprayer cleaning technology in Spirit facilities
Spirit said it also will be testing "sneeze guard" barriers at the airline's Fort Lauderdale, Florida, (FLL) service counters.
The airline hasn't made any permanent changes, but will continue to monitor the situation as it evolves. Spirit noted it uses technology that minimizes customer contact, such as automated self-bag drop and self-bag tagging.
United's latest coronavirus guide says that the airline is allowing customers to practice social distancing on the aircraft when space permits. With 95% of flyers grounded, this shouldn't be an issue if you have to fly.
On April 23, 2020, United announced that it would require all flight attendants to wear masks or face covering while working. The same rule has not been extended to passengers.
Here's an outline of United's current cleaning procedure:
- All flights will get a thorough wipe-down of all touch points (lavatories, galleys, tray tables, window shades and armrests) with an effective, high-grade disinfectant and multi-purpose cleaner.
- United will begin to use electrostatic sprayers as an extra step in the cleaning process to disinfect wide-body aircraft arriving from international destinations, starting at Newark Airport (EWR) and rolling out to other hub airport locations. The sprayers will use an EPA-approved disinfectant.
United says any aircraft that has transported an employee or customer believed to have COVID-19, per the CDC, will be taken out of service for a full decontamination process. This will include regular cleaning procedures as well as washing the ceilings and overhead bins and scrubbing the interior.
There's no doubt that these unprecedented times will lead to some major changes in the travel industry, and these temporary changes in airline procedures are a hint of what's to come.
Until a vaccine is developed, carriers will need to make customers feel safe. Increased cleaning is a start, but we're likely to see demands for more protections, including health screening.
For more on the coronavirus outbreak, check out TPG's coronavirus hub page:
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- How coronavirus is impacting airline award availability
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(Featured photo courtesy of Delta Airlines)