Expectation High for Airline Covid-19 Protocols

02 Jun 2020, Posted by Dominic Olvera in Travel Tips

Delta Sees ‘Indefinite’ Term for Covid-19 Cleaning, Distancing Protocols

Bill Lentsch, SVP Airport Customer Service (ACS)

With some air travel demand expected to return this summer, airlines are establishing new protocols that they hope not only will minimize Covid-19 spread but also will assure travelers that it is safe to return to the skies. To achieve the latter, airlines might at times have to go beyond the recommendations of the science and medical communities, said Delta Air Lines chief customer experience officer Bill Lentsch. In an interview with BTN transportation editor Michael B. Baker, Lentsch detailed what the flying experience will be for customers returning to the skies and why many of the policies and procedures now in place will likely endure at the carrier for a long time.

BTN: What are the key measures you’ve put in place to prevent Covid-19 spread aboard aircraft?

Bill Lentsch: When you look at the spectrum of work that we have done at Delta, it ranges from airports to airplanes. It encompasses our employees and making sure that our employees who are at work are healthy. We’re working across many of our partners in the travel industry to drive the same level of cleanliness and protection for travelers. As you walk into the lobby, customers will see plexiglass shields. We have them installed at all of our locations across our system. We have social distancing marks on the floors of our lobbies. We’ve worked with the [U.S. Transportation Security Administration] in all of our airports to establish indicators to share with our travelers what is a safe distance to spread. We’re handing out masks to our customers if they don’t have them available. In the very near future, we’re going to be handing out masks and gel packs in advance to our customers so they have those available. If they don’t have a mask on in the gate area, they won’t be allowed to board our airplane. We’re trialing a care kit that will provide customers a mask, two gel packs and a card that outlines for them all the various steps we have taken to drive cleanliness. As you walk down the jet bridge, you’ll see social distancing markers, but on the airplanes, we have done some extensive work. We are electrostatically spraying every aircraft before departure, and we’ve been doing this now for a month. They are sprayed with a disinfectant known to kill all of these viruses. We are hand-wiping down all the common touch surfaces, like seatbelts, tray tables, the video screens, gasper vents. We have made an adjustment to the interval at which we replace all of our [high-efficiency particulate air] filters. The air filtration systems on the aircraft are incredibly effective, and they are able to filter out viruses of this size and even smaller. During flight, depending on the aircraft type, it’s between two and five minutes that the cabin air is completely exchanged with outside air. In the meantime, it’s recirculated through a HEPA filter, which will filter out all of these viruses. So, the air quality onboard our aircraft is as clean as an intensive care unit in a hospital. We have halved the interval that the manufacturer recommends to replace those filters. We’re replacing them twice as frequently as the manufacturer recommends. All of these changes are not just something we’re doing during the coronavirus period. These are indefinite changes that we are making. This is laying the foundation for the future of travel onboard Delta. It is now an expectation from our customers, and we are going to meet that expectation indefinitely.

BTN: What about your seating policy?

Lentsch: We are diligent around our load factor caps. We have made a decision that we will not sell middle seats. We will not allow any of our aircraft, whether it’s a mainline aircraft or a regional partner, more than a 60 percent load factor. If it becomes a problem because demand is picking up, we are going to add more flying or upgauge the aircraft in that market rather than crowd more people on an airplane. I’m in regular contact with our corporate partners, and we are hearing that, besides the guarantee on cleanliness, the space and distance onboard the aircraft is the second-most important thing to them as they consider business travel again. We are not going to violate that 60 percent cap. We have our revenue management team, operations center and airport team working hand-in-hand daily, monitoring flights and making sure we do not violate that cap. If we get ourselves for some unseen reason in a position where more than 60 percent of those seats are going to be filled, we will find a way to accommodate customers on another flight, and we will deny boarding. We’re that serious about it.

BTN: How long will that cap be in place?

Lentsch: We don’t have a timeline for when we will adjust that cap, but if we do any adjustment in the future, it will be a slow walk. We have the aircraft availability to add additional flying rather than make people feel uncomfortable about their space on our aircraft.

BTN: Are you adjusting your procedures as new data comes out about the virus and its transmission?

Lentsch: We will use science, and we have joined forces with some prominent medical institutions along with guidance from the [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], who are right in our backyard [in Atlanta]. We will use that to help define our approach, but if the customer feedback indicates there is a level of discomfort, even if we are complying with CDC guidelines, we will go above and beyond to ensure that the customers are comfortable. We use the medical community and their science and technology to get us to a starting point, and we will start rolling out changes. If we get feedback from the customers or hear in advance what’s important to them, and it’s something that pushes us beyond the recommendations of the medical community, we will make sure that we meet the customers’ concerns. We want them to feel safe, comfortable and confident getting on board our aircraft.

BTN: As you have looked at protocols to put into place, is there anything, such as temperature checks, that you determined would not be an effective use of resources?

Lentsch: With temperature checks, all of our customer-facing employees are required to go through a temperature check before they go to work. If they register more than 100.4 degrees, they will be turned around and asked to go home. As far as customer temperature checks, we’re of the mind, through our association with Airlines for America, that the government or maybe a third-party medical outfit funded by the government should be performing any temperature checks on our customers. We don’t believe that’s the responsibility of the airline. Much like the TSA handles security, we recommend the TSA or some agent for the TSA be responsible for temp-checking customers. Outside of that, on things we have discarded, there’s nothing that comes to mind. We have everything on the table, and we know that some actions we are taking are more impactful than others. Our approach has been, let’s layer in various methods of mitigation to make it very difficult for this virus to transmit in any of our environments.

BTN: How are you informing your corporate customers of these protocols?

Lentsch: We have a multi-pronged approach on this. Our sales team is working with our corporate accounts to provide updates. We have an infographic we use as our talking document, and our sales team has been sharing detail behind all the bubbles in that infographic. We are holding virtual town-hall meetings that our sales team has been hosting with many of our corporate accounts, their travel managers and some of their executives. We’re there to answer questions through a livestream. We are creating videos that we are going to be sending out to all of our large corporate accounts, to share with them a video experience of what it’s like to walk through an airport today. It’s very different than it was 30 or 60 days ago, when they may have last traveled. We’re sending out memos from our CEO on a regular basis. They’re getting hit from a lot of directions, and they’re getting all the information about our actions.

BTN: As wearing a mask has become a politicized issue in the United States, have you had any pushback from customers?

Lentsch: We have had very little resistance from customers. They know they aren’t going to get on our airplanes if they aren’t wearing a mask. In flight, we allow them to pull their mask down if they are eating or drinking. We are not asking our flight attendants to actively enforce the policy, but they haven’t had to, because customers have been compliant. There has been one or two instances where a customer has not wanted to wear a mask, so we ask our flight attendants to engage their great customer service skills and either diffuse the situation or reseat someone onboard, but that has been very limited.

Click here for the interview on the BTN website.

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