Airlines turn to testing to stem virus spread, encourage travel

09/04/2020 -Atlanta, Georgia - United Airlines customer service agent Wendy Payne wears a mask as she works with a customer at a ticket counter in the domestic terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Friday, September 4, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
09/04/2020 -Atlanta, Georgia - United Airlines customer service agent Wendy Payne wears a mask as she works with a customer at a ticket counter in the domestic terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Friday, September 4, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Six months into the pandemic, Delta Air Lines has lost billions of dollars.

The company has parked hundreds of planes and cut thousands of workers as air travel has plunged an unprecedented 70%.

A large portion of the public just doesn’t feel safe traveling right now, even with enhanced cleaning protocols, face covering requirements, more spacing between seats and health declaration forms.

09/04/2020 -Atlanta, Georgia - A woman wearing a face shield and a face mask arrives from her flight into the domestic terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Friday, September 4, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
09/04/2020 -Atlanta, Georgia - A woman wearing a face shield and a face mask arrives from her flight into the domestic terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Friday, September 4, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

So, as part of its efforts to fight the spread of the coronavirus, and possibly put would-be travelers at ease, Atlanta-based Delta plans to increase COVID-19 testing. Not on its customers. On its employees.

Delta hopes upping the frequency of the testing on its employees who live in virus hot zones will not only protect them, but will “instill confidence” with consumers about flying Delta.

The airline waded into uncharted waters for most American companies when it began testing all of its employees — including frontline workers like flight attendants and gate agents — for the coronavirus in June.

It plans additional testing of some workers at the highest risk of contracting the virus. There are particular challenges with testing employees of an airline, who are spread across the nation and the world, are constantly on the move and work varying schedules.

Atlanta-based Delta’s CEO Ed Bastian wrote in a memo to employees Thursday that the airline is working with the Mayo Clinic to determine which employees should be tested more frequently, based on factors such as previous cases of COVID-19 and community risk levels.

It’s important to retest our employees at the highest risk of contracting the virus.

- Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta

The airline has tested more than 40,000 of its 75,000 employees so far and will retest 16,000 employees.

For the retesting, Delta plans to re-evaluate the data monthly.

“The medical experts tell us that our program could save more than 100 lives in the communities where our people live and work over the next six months,” Bastian wrote in the memo.

Some 500 employees had already been diagnosed even before Delta began its program to test employees.

Travel requirements

Delta’s moves are part of a doubling down of efforts to combat the effects of the pandemic, in the face of continued weak demand for air travel going into the Labor Day weekend and the slower fall travel period.

Delta and other airlines have said their protocols make it safer to fly. Two recent studies showed evidence of some limited transmission of COVID-19 on planes.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, travel increases the chance of getting and spreading COVID-19, but “most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights.” That’s because air is filtered and circulated vertically through vents above and below seats, the agency says.

The travel industry is also working to remove some of the biggest obstacles to international travel — quarantine requirements.

09/04/2020 -Atlanta, Georgia - Delta Air Lines customers wear masks as they wait to be served at the ticker counter in the domestic terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Friday, September 4, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
09/04/2020 -Atlanta, Georgia - Delta Air Lines customers wear masks as they wait to be served at the ticker counter in the domestic terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Friday, September 4, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Airlines for America is pushing for a pilot program between the U.S. government and other countries for rapid testing that it hopes will eliminate the need for lengthy mandatory quarantines. The quarantines are seen as a major deterrent to travel — and thus to airlines’ financial recovery.

Other associations representing airports and other sectors of the travel industry have joined the airline group in supporting the measure.

The lobbying comes after London Heathrow Airport began pushing for the U.K. government to consider testing as an alternative to quarantine requirements. Heathrow now has a COVID-19 testing facility and wants government approval of a pilot program that could allow early quarantine release for arriving international travelers who test negative twice within a few days.

In the U.S., airlines have not announced plans to test travelers broadly.

Testing is just one of the measures the aviation industry is turning to in an effort to combat the virus and assure travelers that safety precautions are in place.

Hartsfield-Jackson International is seeking an airport health accreditation from industry group Airports Council International, based on an assessment of cleaning and disinfection, distancing, staff protections, passenger facilities and other efforts. Boston Logan became the first airport in North America to get the accreditation, ACI announced Thursday.

Hartsfield-Jackson and all major U.S. passenger airlines are also requiring masks.

So far, Delta has put 270 passengers on its no-fly list for refusing to wear masks on its planes, according to Bastian.

Some passengers who refuse to wear masks once on the plane may be denied boarding on their connecting flight, according to Airlines for America.

Airline job cuts

What’s at stake is the recovery of airlines and airline jobs.

As worried people continue to stay home and avoid travel, airlines have been cutting back to stay in operation.

Delta started off the year with more than 90,000 employees. But it has now slashed its workforce, offering 17,000 buyouts and early retirements. Separately, more than 41,000 of its workers volunteered for temporary unpaid leave.

Overall, the U.S. airline industry had lost more than 55,000 employees by June, according to Airlines for America.

Tens of thousands of additional job losses and route cuts are expected after Sept. 30, when restrictions on furloughs and flight reductions tied to federal airline rescue funding from the CARES Act are due to expire.

Delta sent furlough notices to 1,941 of its pilots. United Airlines said this week it plans to furlough more than 16,000 employees. American Airlines expects to furlough or lay off 19,000 workers in October.

In a bid to avoid the looming job cuts, carriers and unions are pushing for an extension of the federal subsidies for airlines through the CARES Act.

09/04/2020 -Atlanta, Georgia - Delta Air Lines customers wear masks as they wait to be served at the ticker counter in the domestic terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Friday, September 4, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
09/04/2020 -Atlanta, Georgia - Delta Air Lines customers wear masks as they wait to be served at the ticker counter in the domestic terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Friday, September 4, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

ExploreDelta CEO joins push for extension of federal aid for airlines

A couple dozen flight attendants and pilots who want to see that extension picketed Tuesday in front of the Terminus building in Buckhead, where U.S. Sen David Perdue has an office.

At the protest organized by the Association of Flight Attendants union, which represents flight attendants at United and is trying to organize Delta flight attendants, crew members held signs that read “Keep flight attendants in the sky” and “Save our jobs.

A Perdue spokesperson responded with a statement saying the senator helped secure assistance for airlines and their employees through the CARES Act and “continues talking to the White House and Senate leadership about ways to further support them going forward.”

Airlines are crucial to America’s economy, said Airlines for America CEO Nicholas Calio. If the federal stimulus funding is renewed for another six months, he said, “We’ll keep the employees on through March 31, and hopefully we’ll see some kind of rebound and recovery by then.”

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