Published on May 14, 2020

  • HEPA filters on a large plane screen 99.7% of air particles in the cabin and completely recirculate air every two to three minutes, similar to how hospitals' do; regional jets have fresh air constantly flowing.
  • All passengers and staff on United Airlines flights, among others, are now required to wear masks.
  • Airline safety changes include boarding from the rear of the plane first to enforce social distancing and handing wipes to passengers as they board.
  • Airline companies are partnering with cleaning and healthcare businesses to ensure traveler safety.

Video Transcript


JOHN WHYTE: You're watching Coronavirus in Context. I'm Dr. John Whyte, chief medical officer at WebMD. Air travel certainly has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Joining me today to talk about some of the changes that we're going to see in air travel is Josh Earnest. He is the chief communications officer of United Airlines. Josh, thanks for joining me.

JOSH EARNEST: Yeah, nice to see you, John. Thanks for having me.

JOHN WHYTE: Let's start off with-- you know what's on everyone's mind. Is it safe to get back on a plane?

JOSH EARNEST: Yeah. John, it is safe, primarily because of all of the measures that we put in place to ensure the safety of our customers and crew. We've been at the leading edge of industry movements to require masks, to overhaul the way that we clean our aircraft, even to change our boarding procedures. And even some of the infrastructure that we've put in place in airports is all geared toward ensuring that people can travel safely and with confidence if they take the right precautions.

JOHN WHYTE: Let's break down some of those changes. Maybe we'll start with boarding. Folks are going to board from the rear of the plane first. Tell us why you made that change.

JOSH EARNEST: We don't want people to have to walk past rows and rows of customers before they get to their seat. So by seating people at the back, we can ensure you don't have to walk by other people and we can keep you socially distanced from people as you're boarding a plane.

The other thing that we've changed with our boarding procedure is our flight attendants are now handing out to our customers as they board the plane wipes that they can use. These are sanitizing wipes that people can use to either wipe their hands or if they want to personally wipe down the area around them-- their armrest, their tray tables, and other areas. Those are areas that we've already cleaned, and we've overhauled our cleaning procedures. But for peace of mind, if people want to have their own confidence that their areas are clean, we've now given them the tools that they need.

JOHN WHYTE: 1 So we know about physical distancing. That can be hard to do on an aircraft. Talk to us about that middle seat and what the goals are in terms of trying to leave that unoccupied?

JOSH EARNEST: It's important for people to understand that for the vast majority of the flights that we're operating right now, they're less than half full, which means that on a United flight, almost all of the middle seats are open. Even when you're in a situation where the middle seat is open, we recognize that you're still within six feet of other people onboard the plane. So that is why we've taken steps to ensure that everybody is wearing a mask-- all of our passengers and all of our staff as well.

We have also implemented a change to a process to minimize the number of interactions between our flight attendants and customers. So you're not in a situation where the flight is coming back and constantly refilling your cup. They're just giving you a bottle of water so that you can minimize those interactions. Those are some of the things that we're doing to ensure that everyone can be safe onboard.

JOHN WHYTE: Now is it correct that if the plane is more than 70% full, someone can get a notification from United and offered the opportunity to go in a different flight?

JOSH EARNEST: That's right, John. United is the only airline in the world that I know of that's doing this. And what we're doing is, we're monitoring our flights so that if we see that an upcoming flight is likely to be 70% full or more, what we're going to do is we're going to contact our customers 24 hours in advance if you would prefer to take an earlier flight or a later flight, here's some options that you can switch to.

And you don't have to pay anything more. You don't have to pay a change fee, you don't have to pay an addition in fare. We're the only airline in the world that is doing that. We're also reminding people of all the steps they can do to keep themselves safe on the plane, even when it's more than 70% full. So we're finding that it's actually only a very small percentage of our customers who get these emails actually take us up on the option to change their flight.

JOHN WHYTE: Is the refreshments cart and the food carts still going down the aisle? Or are there going to be changes there?

JOSH EARNEST: It typically depends on the length of the flight. For the majority of flights, it no longer does. What we are now providing to people in economy is we are giving them essentially a snack bag that includes, in some cases, a prepackaged snack, often a bottle of water, and those hand sanitizing wipes that I mentioned. And the goal here is to minimize the kind of interactions between our flight attendants and customers.

JOHN WHYTE: Now, Josh, there's always a lot of misconceptions about air flow and air quality on the planes. Can you talk a little bit about that because people often are very confused about how ventilation works on a plane.

JOSH EARNEST: Yeah, John. Well, this is something you could talk to because the kind of air filters that we have on board mainline aircraft at United Airlines are what are called HEPA filters. These filters will screen out 99.97% of the particulates in the air. And it ensures that the air that is being circulated through the plane is completely recirculated every two to three minutes, you've got a whole new air supply on the interior of the aircraft.

So this is very similar to what hospitals do. There's some of our regional jets, John, that don't have the filters. But what they do is they actually have fresh air constantly recirculating through the aircraft. So it's being recirculated even more often.

JOHN WHYTE: And you've all announced a relationship with Clorox. Can you explain to viewers what that is all about?

JOSH EARNEST: We've partnered with two experts, actually. We've partnered with Clorox, which is a company that's been around for more than 100 years. And these people are-- they're experts in disinfection. And so we are partnering with them to ensure that we are, in the most effective way, applying cleaners and disinfectants to keep people safe. And we're reviewing processes with them to ensure that the way that we're using their products are the way that we can maximize the impact that they have in terms of keeping people safe.

We also have announced a partnership with the Cleveland Clinic. These are some of the foremost medical experts in the world. So we're partnering with Cleveland Clinic not just to review the processes we already have in place but also, as new information is learned about the virus, how can we adapt to that new information to make people even safer? So we feel really fortunate to have these experts at our side.

JOHN WHYTE: What do you think is the biggest anxiety that consumers are having about getting back on the plane?

JOSH EARNEST: When it comes to people's anxieties, I think it's the fear of the unknown. There's so much about this virus that we don't know. That makes us nervous to leave the house, particularly after months of sheltering in place. So what we at United are trying to do is trying to empower people with knowledge and information. And so we want to give people the information that they need to be confident about travel, which is why we're talking about things that, frankly, we didn't used to communicate about that much before-- the things about our cleaning process or our boarding procedures.

JOHN WHYTE: Now people want to know those things.

JOSH EARNEST: They do. They do. So even something like installing a Plexiglas shield at the gate to be between one of our crew members and a customer as they are getting ready to board the aircraft, that's a relevant piece of information now. And people want to have the reassurance that we're taking those kinds of steps to keep them safe.

JOHN WHYTE: Let's talk a minute about fare flexibility because you've mentioned the uncertainty of it all. And some consumers might not be getting on a plane because they're not sure what it's going to look like three months from now. What is United doing in terms of giving flexibility to consumers if there is change in travel plans?

JOSH EARNEST: We want people to have some confidence that they can travel, that they can plan to travel. And if for some reason they do change plans, they can do that. The other thing that we have done, John, is we have also taken electronic travel certificates, which are essentially credit for future travel. Typically you have 12 months to use what we call an ETC, an electronic travel certificate. We've actually extended that to 24 months to give people even more flexibility into the future. And by empowering people with that kind of flexibility, we think that it does give people confidence to want to travel again.

JOHN WHYTE: OK. And finally, I'm going to put you on the spot. What does air travel look like six months from now?

JOSH EARNEST: John, anybody who tells you the answer to that question is just guessing. We have seen such a profound disruption in air travel, just in the last couple of months that it has put us in uncharted territory. And it means that an industry like ours, that is really capital-intensive and labor-intensive and relies on a lot of really expensive infrastructure, has to be nimble.

And that, I think, John, may be the right way to end. But for all the profound uncertainty that we have faced over the last couple of months sheltering in place, there's one thing that we've learned, at least one thing that we've learned and we know for sure. And that is that, for as powerful as this technology is that you and I are using to have this conversation right now, it's no replacement for an in-person conversation. We'd love to be having this conversation in person. And it's what gives us a lot of confidence in the future of the travel business. So we're looking forward to people getting back out there again and traveling. And when people are ready to do so, we're going to be here.

JOHN WHYTE: Josh, I want to thank you for taking the time.

JOSH EARNEST: You bet, John. I really enjoyed the conversation. Thanks for inviting me.

JOHN WHYTE: And thank you for watching. I'm Dr. John Whyte.