With the COVID-19 Coronavirus spreading, is it safe to fly? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says yes. From their site:
Because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes, most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on airplanes. Although the risk of infection on an airplane is low, travelers should try to avoid contact with sick passengers and wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer that contain 60%–95% alcohol.
If that’s not enough for you, I don’t blame you. Airlines need to communicate proactively about the measure they are taking.
I surveyed the emails and sites for the largest US airlines. While they have all posted updates, Delta’s is the most specific and the most reassuring.
How Delta reassures
Delta Air Lines has a hub where it shares all information about the virus and the measures it is taking. This is clearly no accident — the airline must have had a crisis communication plan in place and ready to go for an event such as this. They posted most of this information on March 5. Here’s what that site looks like:
Like other airlines, Delta is waiving change fees for tickets purchased in March.
When it comes to cleaning aircraft to keep passengers safe, note the details and specifics in Delta’s messaging. And notice the emphasis on accuracy, as opposed to weasel words about how “excellent” the process is.
6 ways Delta is supporting healthy flying
While efforts to contain COVID-19 continue to evolve, Delta has taken proactive and voluntary steps to help customers have a healthy flying experience.
1. Cleaning, cleaning, and more cleaning
Disinfecting surfaces is one key way to minimize the spread of viruses, according to the CDC and WHO. From airports to aircraft, here are some ways Delta is working to ensure a healthy flying experience using EPA- and OSHA-approved virus-killing products:
Aircraft – Delta has doubled down on its regular cleaning program while adding a fogging process – often used by the food industry– to disinfect trans-oceanic aircraft interiors. As trans-oceanic flights come in, fogging takes place after an initial cleaning, this time with tray tables lowered and overhead bins and lavatory doors open. Seatback entertainment touch-screens are given an extra cleanse using disinfectant wipes. Check out more details about Delta’s aircraft cleaning and sanitizing procedures here.
Check-in kiosks – While touch screens are convenient, they require customers to touch the same surface that others have. That’s why we’re disinfecting airport kiosks multiple times daily. Customers can always download the Fly Delta app so you can check-in from your phone instead. Simply sign in as a “guest” or create a Delta SkyMiles account for free with no obligations.
Gate areas – In addition to the ticket counter and airport lobby area, Delta has increased the cleaning schedule of gates areas, making supplies readily available to our customer service agents for spot or more frequent cleaning and more seat cleaning in the process.
Onboard blankets – Our blankets are only as comfy as they are clean – that’s why every blanket is removed after each flight to be washed, dried and folded by industrial- strength machines. Blankets are transported back to aircraft in a plastic bag, where they stay until provisioned for customer use.
2. Giving customers a hand (sanitizer, and more)
Simple personal hygiene including frequent hand washing and not touching your eyes, nose or mouth is essential to minimizing the spread of the COVID-19 and other viruses. While we know many customers are following this guidance, here are some other ways Delta is arming customers with ways to stay clean:
Hand sanitizers – Delta is putting hand sanitizers on all ticket counters, boarding gates, Need Help Centers, Baggage Service Offices and Sky Clubs starting with our hub airports where we serve the highest volume of customers – something employees and customers alike can take advantage of before boarding the aircraft.
Amenity kits – These kits for customers on long-haul international flights include hand cleanser or cleansing towelettes.
3. Breathing easy in flight
Aircraft in Delta’s fleet feature either a state-of-the-art air circulation system with HEPA filtration or a system that pulls fresh air in from the outside to replace cabin air. HEPA air filters extract more than 99.999% of even the tiniest viruses, including coronaviruses.
4. Arming employees with facts and supplies
Delta employees are the foundation of our success – their health, safety and knowledge are paramount. Here are some ways we’re supporting employees so they can better support customers:
Supplies – Providing hand sanitizer, gloves and other protective equipment, particularly for those who engage directly with customers, and masks for use by ill customers, their caretakers or flight attendants or pilots who are in close contact with ill customers.
Information – Delta has launched a cross-divisional COVID-19 command center with key leaders and subject matter experts so we can nimbly respond and communicate with employees about evolving CDC and WHO guidance. General updates and role-specific guidance are being provided to employees regularly.
This week Delta welcomed CDC doctors working on the COVID-19 outbreak to a town hall in Atlanta, where frontline employees were able to ask questions and hear from experts. For employees not able to attend, Delta leaders are sharing what was learned and key takeaways were distributed to every Delta employee worldwide. . . .
Other airlines’ messaging fails the test of clarity
Is it safe to fly on other airlines? Almost certainly. But none of the others I reviewed had anywhere near the level of clarity and detail that Delta shared. To be clear about my method: I Googled the name of the airline and “COVID-19” and observed as much as possible of the virus-related messaging on each airline’s site.
American Airlines falls back on weasel words
Updated March 10. Note the squishy language. I’ve highlighted the weasel words in bold italic:
On every journey you take with American Airlines, your safety and well-being, and that of our team members, is our top priority. Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a complicated and fluid situation, and we continue to work closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Department of State and public health officials on the latest developments.
Having information on our response is a critical step in giving you peace of mind during travel. Here’s what we’re doing to ensure your safe journey with us:
Our cleaning practices have always met or exceeded all CDC guidelines. We have a strong, structured cleaning regimen and our aircraft are cleaned each day at key touchpoints on their journeys with an EPA-approved disinfectant.
International flights and aircraft with additional time on the ground receive a detailed 30-point cleaning package each day. All of our aircraft also undergo a deep cleaning procedure on a regularly scheduled basis.
We are enhancing our cleaning procedures on international flights and aircraft that remain overnight at an airport. This move, which will touch the majority of our aircraft each day, includes a more thorough cleaning of all hard surfaces, including tray tables and armrests.
Most of our aircraft are equipped with High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters that provide a complete air change approximately 15 to 30 times per hour, or once every two to four minutes. A HEPA filter’s complete air change is better than most other forms of transportation and office buildings’ and similar to the standard for hospitals.
We’re provisioning hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes for crew members on all international flights across the Pacific Ocean and to Italy. We are working to expand this measure to all flights in the near future. . . .
See the difference? This is long on promises and words like “majority” and “enhancing,” and “deep cleaning” that either don’t affect all the aircraft or have no meaning at all.
United, Southwest, and JetBlue are similarly vague
The same sort of weaselly reassurance appears on these other airlines’ sites.
- United: All aircraft are cleaned at a variety of touchpoints throughout the day. . . . The cleaning procedure for flights includes a thorough wipe-down of all hard surfaces. . . . United uses an effective, high-grade disinfectant.
- Southwest: Southwest Airlines aircraft are maintained in accordance with an established program aimed at providing a clean and inviting cabin environment. . . . as of March 4, 2020, we have enhanced our overnight cleaning procedures. Typically, we use an EPA approved, hospital-grade disinfectant in the lavatories and an interior cleaner in the cabin. Now, we are expanding the use of the hospital-grade disinfectant throughout the aircraft, and it will be used in the cabin, on elements in the flight deck, and in the lavatory.
- JetBlue: We know the coronavirus situation is evolving and we are working hard to make sure we’re prepared. This includes: Increasing the rigor of cleaning and sanitizing procedures on our aircraft. . . . Promoting handwashing and healthy hygiene practices among our crewmembers. . . . Disinfecting common surfaces more frequently inside our airport terminals.
Is Delta actually cleaner?
It’s hard to know whose measures will be most effective. But the level of specificity in the Delta Air Lines message, as well as the many and detailed forms of communication it uses, are the most reassuring. They’re clearly taking this problem seriously.
The other messages seem pro-forma by comparison. They all say that passenger safety is a priority, and they all say they are meeting or exceeding CDC guidelines. But the more weasel words and the fewer specifics in the communication, the less reassuring it is. JetBlue’s in particular seems worrisome: why are you bragging about telling your crew to wash their hands while all you have to say about cleaning is that you have increased the rigor of your efforts?
The lessons for corporate action in a crisis are clear: You don’t just have to be prepared to act. You don’t just need a plan to communicate those actions. You need calm, sober facts, because the more weasel words you deploy, the less we will be believe you.