By Mary Kate McGrath - July 28, 2020
Air travel has increased in the United States in recent weeks, with the TSA screening approximately 3.4 million flyers during the five days of July, a large increase from a month ago, as per CNN. Fewer people are traveling for personal or professional risks as COVID-19 cases continue to surge, but airlines are getting more traffic as Americans begin to feel more comfortable with domestic travel. Additionally, international flights conducting repatriation efforts have ramped up in recent weeks, bringing people back to the country from abroad. Moving forward, airlines must continue to plan to manage health and safety for employees during the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on social-distancing on flights, screening for coronavirus symptoms, and implementing a comprehensive communications plan.
Travel inevitably increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission, with airports, bus stations, train stations, and rest stops exposing people to the virus in the air and on surfaces, according to the CDC. Airports require passengers and employees to wait in security lines and come into contact with frequently-touched surfaces, but viruses and germs don’t spread easily in flights due to the way air is filtered and circulated on planes. Therefore, the biggest risk for flyers is an inability to social distance on a crowded plane, once again underscoring the importance of ensuring flights are socially-distancing compliant. Passengers must make the proper considerations before flying in accordance with CDC guidelines, and airline officials can make proactive decisions to minimize risk for workers during this unusual time.
In July, the average flight was carrying around 60 people, which means most airlines are flying at approximately 50% capacity, according to Airlines for America. While de-densification is a first and critical step for ensuring flights are safe for passengers and employees, there are several other steps airlines can take to manage safety amid the ongoing pandemic. Major considerations for airlines looking to mitigate COVID-19 risk for flyers, establishing a universal mask policy, screening flyers for COVID-19 symptoms, and being transparent with workers with consistent communication.
As the pandemic continues to upend daily life across the country, airlines have adapted to the “new normal” with a variety of mitigation efforts. Each airline will have unique capacity or resources, but at minimum, airlines should be prioritizing social-distancing compliant flights, reliable communications, and PPE availability for employees. These efforts are proven to mitigate risk for both passengers and employees, including pilots, flight attendants, and other service personnel, as they continue to perform their role while minimizing the risk of spreading the disease.
Every airline should create a comprehensive and clear policy for travelers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, American Airlines created a new policy that requires all passengers to wear a face covering, except for young children or anyone with a medical condition that prevents them from wearing one. Before arrival at the airport, the updated policy is communicated to travelers. American Airlines made it clear that masks were to be procured and brought by travelers, the mask must be on before boarding the plane and during the flight, and that such a covering may be removed to eat or drink but must be put back on immediately afterward.
Proactive communication about policy changes - such as facial coverings, or social distancing expectations - can prevent any confusion or confrontation for both flyers and employees. American Airlines made it clear that any individual not wearing a mask might be denied boarding or travel due to noncompliance. A mass notification system can be a powerful tool for communicating updated policy changes, allowing employees and flyers to opt-in for targeted alerts before arriving at the airport for a shift for a flight. The airline can set a specific keyword for different groups - for example FLYER for patrons - and distribute specific information regarding updated mask policy or any other changes to flight protocol.
Airlines can engage customers in COVID-19 risk mitigation by requiring individuals to report symptoms before coming to the airport. United Airlines now requires passengers to complete a “health self-assessment" as part of the check-in process, part of a larger initiative to ensure that air travel is safe, as per NPR. Travelers must complete a “ready to fly checklist'' when checking in online or confirm their health verbally to a gate agent, similar to how passengers must confirm they don’t plan to bring banned substances onto the plane, as per the publication.
Distributing a boarding checklist to passengers is a best practice for airlines, requiring passengers to self-identify symptoms or concerns. The United Airlines checklist poses a series of questions and reminders to the flyer, including:
If a flyer does not meet this criteria, the tool directs the user to rebook the flight. United’s Corporate Medical Director Pat Baylis issued a statement that said the measure, “sets clear guidelines on health requirements for our customers and helps minimize the risk of exposure” for individuals choosing to use the airline for their immediate travel.
Airlines should take a proactive approach to employee health and wellness by leveraging a corporate coronavirus recovery solution that ensures employees are symptom-free before arriving at work. The check-in feature allows airlines to facilitate rapid isolation for individuals who have tested positive or at risk, and offer available community resources for those in-need. Provide stakeholders with an accessible channel for updates on accessibility to medical care, childcare, and other needs through an easy-to-access notification capability. Meanwhile, the tool can also facilitate reaching out to other workers, and finding an employee who is healthy and prepared to fill a shift amid the pandemic staffing shortages. Bringing workers back to flying safely and good health is a cornerstone of restoring operations and fostering a sustainable business plan for the foreseeable future.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.