Lori Ceasar, 49, was nervous about boarding a full flight.
But on her recent trip from Louisiana to Philadelphia, the Lake Charles resident calmed down after seeing that her seatmates were wearing face masks, gloves and face shields. “They were younger people, with full PPE, and that made me feel safer,” she said.
On Tuesday, American Airlines sought to assuage customers such as Ceasar. Airline executives led a guided tour for reporters, highlighting new safety protocols at check-in kiosks, the Admirals Club, boarding gates, and the planes themselves.
“This is the start of a busy travel period for us,” said Jim Moses, vice president of Northeast Hubs and Gateways for American, noting that his airline expects more than 50,000 travelers this year through Philadelphia International for the Fourth of July weekend. “We’ve added social-distance markers, face coverings, and cleaning to keep passengers safe.”
American Airlines recently announced that all flights will be booked to full capacity starting July 1, meaning that passengers will be seated less than six feet apart for the duration of their flights.
The company also plans to increase the average flights per day at Philadelphia International Airport by 111% on July 7 from what they were in June, estimating an average of 207 departures a day on a modified summer schedule. Still, that number is down by almost half from July 2019.
Among the leading airlines that operate out of Philadelphia International, so far only American and United have announced that they will fully book flights this summer.
But passengers should not expect any international flights. The European Union formally announced Tuesday that it will ban all flights by nonessential Americans to Europe for as long as they are deemed a health threat. Last year, American operated 21 daily trans-Atlantic flights to 20 destinations in Europe.
With increased flights elsewhere, however, American also plans to upgrade its safety and cleaning measures.
When customers check in, American requires them to complete a health assessment survey. “The questions validate that you’re willing to wear a face covering throughout the flight and that you have not been exposed to COVID-19,” Moses said. Kiosks are disinfected by employees after each use.
At the boarding gate, passengers are reminded of the requirement to wear face coverings for the duration of the flight, and warned that they could be denied boarding if they don’t comply. But Moses noted that there are some exceptions to the face-covering requirement, such as if a passenger has trouble breathing. “They would still be in their normal seat, and it would be cleared with the flight crew,” said Moses.
Between each flight, a group of six to eight employees is already spending a half-hour cleaning the inside of the plane with paper towels and a spray bottle of Sani-Cide EX3, a broad-spectrum disinfectant. At night, 10 employees spend an hour and a half giving the plane a deep clean with the same disinfectant. Every seven to 10 days, planes are also sanitized with spray guns, which cover the walls, seats, overhead bins, and ceilings with a fast-drying disinfectant.
“The cleanliness of planes so far is better than it’s ever been before,” said Charlie Leocha, president and co-founder of Travelers United, a group that represents travelers.
But “airlines really have no enforcement capability of dealing with people who don’t wear face masks,” he said, bemoaning the lack of a federal mandate for onboard face coverings.
He worries that on a full flight, one person without a mask could put everyone at risk. In general, he’s not happy about American’s decision to pack its planes.
“I’m concerned about the fact that American Airlines is stopping social distancing and getting ready to pack planes again,” Leocha said.
Despite a surge of new COVID-19 cases in Florida, Texas, Arizona and other parts of the country, Moses said, the airline has no plans to reconsider booking full flights. “We feel very, very comfortable with the layers of safety and security we have in place,” he said.
So far, those measures don’t include regular COVID-19 tests for employees, or temperature checks for passengers before boarding.
But among the changes that passenger will notice, the Admirals Club, a private lounge, now operates at 50% capacity. Patrons are led to different areas of the lounge by employees to ensure social distancing. The bar is also open in a limited capacity, and the only available food is pre-packaged snacks.
Likewise at the ticket kiosk and boarding gates, all employees wear face coverings, and every service checkpoint has a plexiglass shield to separate customers from workers.
Jason Coulter, 38, said he feels comfortable with the changes. “They have to take precautions and I understand that and it doesn’t bother me,” he said.