Welcome on Board, for the Best In-Flight Disinfectant Experience - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Welcome cocktails can wait. Airlines are now marketing fogging procedures instead.
SourceAlvaro Tapia Hidalgo for OZY

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Welcome cocktails can wait. Airlines are now marketing their fogging procedures instead.

By Joshua Eferighe

Cocktails. Bistro-style dining. Custom dinnerware. Chocolates. As Delta launched a new, international, economy-class cabin service last fall, it unveiled a cheery advertisement listing all that passengers could expect.

Six months later, it has released a new commercial. There are no testimonials from happy passengers, and no smiling staff. Instead, Bill Lentsch, the company’s chief customer experience officer, walks viewers through aircraft cleaning procedures, while a worker with a fogging machine sprays powerful disinfectant throughout the cabin.

It’s an unlikely promotional step in an industry that sells experiences and dreams as much as the basic needs of those who have to get from one place to another. But at a time when the aviation industry is in free fall because of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 270,000 people globally — including 78,000 in the United States alone — airlines are marketing cleanliness as their draw. They’re trying to lure customers through fogging, cleaning, swiping and other measures even before stay-at-home orders have been fully lifted. 

Southwest, which uses an Environmental Protection Agency–approved, hospital-grade disinfectant in lavatories, has extended its cleaning procedures throughout the aircraft, including on the flight deck and in the main cabin. JetBlue says it has “enhanced aircraft cleansing” and is “applying disinfectant that is effective against the coronavirus across aircraft interiors, including the places customers touch most — the tray tables, seat covers, armrests and seat belts.”

Emirates, which has just restarted some flights, is putting all of its aircraft through additional disinfecting. A team of 18 trained cleaners work on a Boeing 777 (a team of 36 handles an A380) to turn it around quickly. Cathay Pacific is doing something similar while also offering in-flight passengers regular health updates, hand sanitizer and cleaner lounges, with buffets being replaced by fresh-cooked meals on individual orders. 

Delta is using fog machines to turn disinfectants into aerosols that are sprayed throughout its planes and that coat all surfaces. It claims the EPA-grade disinfectant has been shown to kill coronaviruses, and that following the fogging procedure, a crew cleans cabin surfaces, including tray tables, seatback screens and lavatories. Airline staff carry out spot-checks to ensure the cleanliness of the aircraft. Delta even has a marketing term for its efforts: Delta Clean.

Passengers will be concerned about cleanliness when traveling.

Jennifer “Jaki” Johnson, flight attendant and founder, Jetsetter Chic

As of last week, American, United, Delta, Southwest, Alaska, Frontier and JetBlue require all crew and passengers to wear face masks — the airlines will provide them to passengers who don’t have them. Air Canada is introducing mandatory preflight temperature checks for passengers. And on Thursday, the Transportation Security Administration announced that its officers would wear masks while screening passengers at security checkpoints.

Will customers bite? According to Jennifer “Jaki” Johnson — a flight attendant for a major airline and founder of Jetsetter Chic, a subscription box startup for women who travel frequently — passengers will certainly be checking which airlines are taking their safety concerns most seriously.

“Passengers will be concerned about cleanliness when traveling and would want to see what other steps airlines and airports are doing to safeguard passengers from germs moving forward,” Johnson says.

For the airline industry, the road ahead is steep. The aviation sector is expected to see losses of more than $300 billion in 2020, according to the International Air Transport Association. The Center for Aviation, an aviation consultancy, estimates that many airlines will bankrupt by the end of May. “The industry first and foremost needs government support to get through this crisis,” independent aviation analyst Brendan Sobie writes in an email. “Many airlines will also need to raise capital in the private markets and have already begun this process.”

However, even with a $58 billion bailout for the sector, the U.S. Travel Association estimates a loss of 5.9 million travel industry jobs by the end of April.

Delta is reducing its flight capacity by 40 percent, the biggest reduction in operations in the airline’s history, including the months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. United is cutting corporate officers’ salaries by half and has reduced flight capacity by about 50 percent in April and May, with deep capacity cuts also expected later into the summer. American Airlines has canceled 75 percent of its international flights and has grounded nearly all its wide body jets.

“All airlines tend to have very high fixed-cost structure so a relatively small decline in volume has a big impact on earnings and free cash flow,” says David Nolletti, director of Conway MacKenzie, part of Riveron, who’s also an airline restructuring expert and a commercial pilot. “I think it will take 12 to 18 months for demand to return to normal.”

Another factor working against airlines is the changed behavior not only of individuals but also that of businesses. Companies have now had the chance to see how effectively and conveniently meetings can be conducted online with apps such as Zoom. Johnson says business travel will have to prove its necessity in the market because business meetings have forever been changed due to this disruption.

But airlines are gambling that at some point, passengers will return, once the need to stay at home in hopes of flattening the curve goes away. “We’re ready for you, when you’re ready to fly,” Lentsch says in the new ad. Emirates doesn’t have a cool tagline like “Delta Clean” but advertises a “peace of mind” for travelers. The international carrier says it uses an approved chemical that is proven to kill viruses and germs, and leaves a “long-lasting protective coating” on surfaces against new contamination of viruses, bacteria and fungi. Oh, and the chemical is apparently eco-friendly.

As restrictions on movement lift, some might not have an option but to travel. Others might want to. When they do fly, bistro-style dining will be secondary — for the airlines and for many passengers. What they will get are cleaning standards perhaps we should have been getting even earlier.

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