We got an inside look at how Delta is cleaning planes between every flight
Delta CEO Ed Bastian believes consumer's perceptions of safety will drive travel demand more than anything else. Backing up his statement are the practices and procedures Delta continues to put in place to keep passengers safe, from the the time you check-in until you're on your final walk out of the airport.
We got an inside look at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL) where Delta is working both behind the scenes and in front of passengers to minimize the risk of a COVID-19 (or any other pathogen) infection. Delta has set up a model experience for sanitizing airport and onboard spaces at ATL and will continue to roll out that standard to every airport they serve.
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Let's go all the way from check-in to the onboard experience and see how Delta is doing everything it can to give keep passengers safe while flying.
The Delta check-in area in the ATL South Terminal remained largely empty during my visit (my first since March 5). Differences were, however, immediately noticeable. You can't walk more than 20 feet without seeing hand sanitizers or social distancing signs and floor markers.
Acrylic barriers have been placed in front of check-in agents, all of whom are required to wear masks.
Passengers are also required to wear masks at any Delta interaction point. Staff were circling the check-in area with stacks of what looked like surgical masks in hand to give to any passenger without a mask. The self-service check-in kiosks are also regularly being sanitized. I happened to capture a Delta employee in an orange vest walking around and cleaning the machines during my brief time in the area.
On your way to security it is impossible to miss the social distancing reminders, whether they are on the floor or on signs, as well as hand sanitizers.
I first went to check out CLEAR's processes at the ATL security check point. CLEAR agents were asking all customers to do iris scans only, but had cleaner and wipes ready for each time a customer touched the fingerprint identification pad.
The TSA experience largely mirrored what we wrote about a few days ago. TSA agents all had masks on and I was asked to briefly raise my own mask so the agent could compare my picture ID to my likeness. You can scan your own boarding pass. At ATL, the security bins were being wiped down after they were used. Additional spacing reminders were in all public areas of the airport.
Delta has taken ownership of gate areas at the Atlanta airport and regularly sanitizes the entire immediate vicinity. Azeem Mistry, Director of Airport Operations for all of Delta and the lead for Delta's electrostatic sprayers (which we'll discuss below), told me the goal of all Delta sanitizing efforts is to disinfect the high touch points of gate areas and airplane cabins.
The gate area we visited and all the gates we walked by looked noticeably cleaner than my typical airport venture where you see stained carpet, crumb filled chairs and sticky substances from spills. Gate areas are cleaned by hand four times daily, and the electrostatic sprayers and carpet steamers are used once per day.
Acrylic barriers have been installed at the gate agent desk as well as the desk where you scan your boarding pass. Social distancing markers are on the floor and masks are required by passengers during the boarding process.
During boarding, gate agents now have a couple of new tasks. They have "cheat sheets" behind the desk ensuring load capacity is never above 60% for any given flight. This is a back up to the IT limitations Delta has on its website for selling tickets.
Related: Delta speeds up airport projects
Gate agents are also given the responsibility to ensure every aircraft meets the new 'brand standard' before starting the boarding process. If they and the flight crew don't believe the plane has been thoroughly cleaned, they are empowered to call the cleaning crew back to the plane.
Jet bridges are also given a cleaning on a regular basis with electrostatic sprayers and carpet cleaners. After over fifty flights of standing in a jet bridge waiting for my stroller to be brought up, I can tell you this was the cleanest jet bridge I've ever walked down.
Delta is cleaning every plane between every flight and overnight. The process starts after deplaning when workers with electrostatic sprayers lower every tray table and open every overhead bin. The sprayers I saw were in backpack form and carried about 2.2 gallons of disinfectant which workers said would last them an entire shift.
They then use the machines which spray electrically charged, EPA registered liquid disinfectant similar to Clorox in a fine mist. The cleaner clings to the first surface it touches and is no longer visible within 8 seconds of spraying.
Related: Delta CEO says industry nears ‘bottom’ of coronavirus crisis, recovery a ways off
The disinfectant kills any pathogens including coronaviruses and is immediately safe for employees and passengers after application. Workers told me they could spray narrow-body planes in 3-5 minutes and wide-body planes in 7-8 minutes. Workers are certified with the sprayer after a four hour on-the-job training. Planes are doing 5-7 segments on average per day now, meaning they are cleaned an equal 5-7 times per day.
Related: Delta sees a more premium future
The spraying, however, is only the first part of a two-stage process to clean the plane between every flight. After the airplane is sprayed front to back, a cleaning crew comes aboard and wipes all surfaces and common areas with disinfectant.
The 737-900 I was on was noticeably cleaner at first sight than any plane I've been on. The first test I wanted to complete was walking on the forward galley surface you transit through the boarding door. Road warriors know this is often an incredibly sticky floor. You regularly hear your shoes peel off of due to the stickiness left behind by galley spills and high traffic. The floor was spotless and clean, a good sign for the rest of the plane.
The carpet and seats were spotless, tray tables even had crumbs cleaned out of the usual places and seat-back pockets were sanitized.
Every 15 days, Delta planes are now going through a process called 'conditioning' where the sanitation goes beyond the now-usual cleaning process. Parts, pieces and panels showing wear and tear are cleaned, repaired or replaced. Seat cushions are removed, scuff marks repaired, lavatory panels taken apart, air vents cleaned and any easily removable parts or upholstery showing wear are replaced — including the seat-back pockets which are held on by velcro.
As far as the lavatories go, they are also electrostatically sprayed and wiped down like the rest of the plane between every flight and again overnight.
During the conditioning process every 15 days, panels like the one shown below are removed and cleaned including the entire toilet, panels above the sink and baby changing table.
Before departure, planes must have their soap bottles in the lavatories full. A 'tidy kit' is now also included on every flight with additional sanitizing equipment.
In my opinion, the processes I saw would be the gold standard of cleaning an aircraft. Of course Delta knew I was coming for the visit, but the plane we went to was picked at the last minute because we were early and you can't make up all of these procedures.
Delta representatives said they were going to continue to refine the process to become more efficient, modeling a racing 'pit stop' where workers had a specified time and place for every task and had an environment to practice. Delta is also adamant there was no scheduled end date for these procedures and they're here to stay for the foreseeable future. The 737 I boarded was cleaner than my own home and definitely cleaner than the few local merchants I've visited for groceries or supplies over the last couple months.
I spent roughly two hours in the airport and on the plane and the only thing I touched was the security bin I had to load my things in and push onto the conveyor belt. With a mask on, clean airport, clean boarding area and a plane cleaned multiple times per day, I have the confidence I would likely be fine taking a Delta flight.
Additional resources for traveling during the coronavirus outbreak:
- How coronavirus is impacting airline award availability
- How coronavirus has left the travel industry reeling
- Airlines scale back inflight offerings due to coronavirus
- Hotels — and the ick factor — in the time of coronavirus
- Guide to traveling during the coronavirus outbreak
- Extreme measures cruise lines are taking during coronavirus