At a town hall hosted by the Queens Chamber of Commerce last week, representatives from Delta, United, JetBlue and Southwest Airlines discussed the safety protocols that they have undertaken amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The panel kicked off with an update from Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who spoke about the $8 billion rebuilding of LaGuardia Airport.
The Port Authority maintained construction during the coronavirus outbreak, but instituted many worker safety requirements, Cotton said. Temperature checks and face shields were required to enter the construction site.
Contractors also conducted safety briefings, vastly enhanced cleanings, and provided hand-washing facilities and dispensers.
“Social distancing is the rule,” he said.
Cotton noted that air travel numbers during the pandemic remain “hugely depressed.” New York, which was the epicenter of the virus for several months, had a hard time dispeling that reputation, Cotton said.
But the Port Authority executive director said he believes air travel will come back.
“It’s a question of when, not if,” he said. “We want to be ready and prepared. We want to do our part by enhancing the airports to the greatest extent possible.”
Stephanie Baldwin, vice president of Delta Airlines, said the company had 230 peak flying days last year. So far in 2020, they have only had 23 peak days.
But Baldwin said they are starting to see “some positives.” The company will soon reinstate service to San Juan, Santo Domingo and Santiago, as well as key business markets like Cleveland and Charlotte.
“Delta is welcoming you back,” Baldwin said.
In terms of cleanliness, Delta sanitizes 100 percent of its aircrafts everyday, Baldwin said. The company uses an “electrostatic spray” that gravitates toward surfaces and kills viruses on contact.
They also recirculate air using HEPA air filters. Delta requires face masks, which Baldwin said is “non-negotiable.” They also have hand sanitizing stations throughout airports and passengers receive sanitizer in flight as part of a care kit.
Like many other airlines, Delta has seat caps for both economy and first-class travel. Coach is capped at 60 percent capacity, while first-class is capped at 50 percent.
At JFK Airport, Delta conducts temperature checks for every employee, Baldwin said. They have also started COVID-19 antibody testing for their workforce.
“We are not going to compromise on our customer safety” she said.
Similarly, United Airlines also conducted COVID-19 swab and antibody testing two weeks ago, according to vice president Michael Erbeck. They also use electrostatic cleaning on aircrafts, and have partnered with Clorox and Cleveland Clinic on best practices.
Erbeck said customers are required to wear masks, and the company also conducts temperature checks with employees.
“We have a layered approach to everything we do,” he said.
As for JetBlue, Jeffrey Goodell, vice president of partnerships, government and airport affairs said the company launched a “comprehensive health and safety plan” with proactive measures. He noted that JetBlue was the first airline to require face masks.
The airline is blocking most middle seats, and capping aircrafts between 50 and 60 percent capacity. JetBlue will continue that practice through the end of July.
“We have always been a values-driven organization,” Goodell said. “Safety is always our first priority.”
The JetBlue executive noted that in June, the company operated about a quarter of its pre-COVID flight schedule. He expects that number to be around 50 percent in July and tick up to 60 percent in August.
“We’re all focused on the same mission,” Goodell said, “which is to reassure travelers that when they’re ready, they should come back and travel with us.”
David Harvey, vice president at Southwest Airlines, detailed what his company is doing to ensure safety, including overnight cleaning and capping the number of tickets to two-thirds of the aircraft, a practice they have extended through at least September 30.
Harvey said distancing on board is the biggest factor for passengers’ comfort level. Like the other airlines, customers can’t fly Southwest without wearing a face mask.
“We don’t want to create undue risks,” he said.
Harvey noted that Southwest is back up to 20 flights at LaGuardia Airport, which will be up to 40 flights soon.
When asked about the possible return of business travel, airline executives said they believe it will come back, but not as quickly as previously thought.
“When your first competition goes out to meet their client, that will start it off,” Erbeck said, noting that is what happened after 9/11. “It just takes time to get comfortable with the new world we’re in.”
Others spoke about their optimism about the industry. Goodell said they are confident about the future, even if there is uncertainty.
“We really do believe we will come through this,” he said. “We might be slightly different looking companies, but we’ll be well positioned to serve our communities.”
Baldwin added that all airline companies are even setting aside the competition to work together to get the public confident with flying.
“We really invite you to fly with us,” she said. “We’ll make it work for you.”