In 2019, I flew 173,059 miles. In 2020, I’ve flown 10,568.
For someone whose livelihood relies on a world in motion, March 10 was a daunting day. On that day, our parent company, Dotdash, sent us home from our Times Square office, encouraging working from home for an indefinite period. On that day, I canceled not one but two trips: the first, a media visit to Rome at the end of March, and the second, a two-week tour around Japan with my husband on the books for the end of April.
While I mourned these trips, I felt perhaps the greatest sense of sadness over my now-empty flight schedule. When you spend something like 400 hours in the air each year, almost exclusively on a single airline, you learn to relish that time—and you also get to know people. One of the people I know is Jim.
Jim is a flight attendant who I mainly see on transatlantic flights from my home airport of JFK—we’ve flown to London, Rome, and Zurich together, by pure happenstance, and would always spend some time chatting about my work, his daughter’s non-profit, and the joys of flying. So when the pandemic gripped New York and ground virtually all travel to a halt seemingly overnight, I immediately worried about the health, safety, and job security of the pilots and crews who had safely shepherded me around the world for years.
I should’ve known that Jim was in good hands. As travel slowly ramps up and people venture into the world again, one airline’s dedication to health and safety has stood out from the others: Delta Air Lines.
Delta has introduced its “CareStandard,” a set of guidelines that begin at check-in and end at baggage claim, all designed to make your journey safer—and to protect their people, like my friend Jim. Delta has committed to blocking middle seats through January 2021, among other measures, and proudly boasts about its list of 400-plus passengers who can no longer fly the airline due to their refusal to wear masks onboard.
The company’s dedication to its passengers’ well-being is spearheaded by a new Global Cleanliness Division. “The goal of the cleanliness organization is just to make sure that we are meeting Delta standards, whether it's airport cleaning, whether it is laundry cleaning, gate cleaning,” explained Stephanie Baldwin, the vice-president of airport operations at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. “Whatever area that we touch, that's the goal of this organization.”
Delta’s dedication begins when you check-in, where plexiglass barriers now protect ticketing agents, and high-touch areas are frequently disinfected and cleaned. Even during the security screening—arguably any flier’s least-favorite part of a trip—Delta’s made investments that not only benefit the airline but other airlines that share their terminals.
At JFK, where Delta typically operates more than 200 flights per day to 97 destinations worldwide, it has invested in new security bins made of innovative antimicrobial material. Introduced in early September, the containers are now available for use in Atlanta, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Los Angeles, New York’s LaGuardia Airport and JFK.
On the day I visited JFK’s Terminal 4, where most of Delta’s New York flights originate, I watched as gate agents fastidiously and repeatedly cleaned their work areas—wiping down keyboards, phones, monitors, and stools. “I think it's a sense of comfort for them,” said Baldwin, “and if you happen to have good timing to walk up when they're doing this, I think it's a sense of comfort for the customer, too.”
That attention to detail transfers to the aircraft, as well. Passengers using the Fly Delta app receive a push notification while their aircraft is being cleaned, and the cleanliness status of any given plane is subject to approval from multiple parties—flight attendants, ground crews, and pilots communicate via flight family communicators, which require them to sign-off that a flight has been cleaned and meets certification. “Think of it as text messaging,” explained Baldwin. If these rigorous standards are not met, the crew can pull the flight and repeat the process.
Sandy Gordon, Delta’s senior vice-president of airport operations for domestic stations, saw the process first-hand early on when she and her husband flew back to her daughter’s college campus to retrieve belongings she had left there.
“Even though I had been intimately involved in the planning for what was going to happen at the airport, there was a level of anxiety for my family. But coming into the airport and starting to experience it through the lens of a customer and a traveler, my anxiety lessened as I went,” Gordon said. “At the end of that, I felt really comfortable about the things we had put into place, not only from my perspective but then the comments from my husband and my daughter, who had no idea what was going on here and were just relying on me to say, ‘It's safe, we can do this.’”
Onboard, the airline uses an electrostatic sprayer to clean and disinfect the cabin before every flight. The liquid disinfectant is discharged from the device in a fine mist of 40 microns, followed by aircraft cleaners who then wipe down seating areas, including screens, tray tables, and armrests. (The only place that doesn’t get sprayed? The cockpit. “Too many vital instruments in there to be getting wet,” the airline said.)
As passengers board, flight attendants distribute a care package, including two Purell hand wipes and a mask. Snacks (Cheez-Its and Delta’s famous Biscoff cookies) are prepackaged, along with a bottle of water. “It's a streamlined service that allows our crew members to continue to do what we love to do, which is to serve our customers aboard the airplane,” explained Gordon.
It’s been tough for airlines this year, and Delta isn’t exempt in that regard. But perhaps what’s more remarkable is, despite losing $5.4 billion in the third quarter, Delta has still managed to avoid involuntary furloughs of its staff, instead allowing employees to take voluntary buyouts or early retirement. (Of course, the offer was bittersweet—at JFK alone, 261 employees took the offer, costing the airline a collective 6,000 years of seniority, according to Baldwin.)
The health of Delta crew members is also top of mind for the company. The airline has introduced rapid-testing in partnership with the Mayo Clinic and CVS Health, a measure that, according to the two flight attendants I spoke with, is being used regularly and gives an added layer of security to their trips. (All crew temperatures are also taken as they pass through the airport’s secure area.) Out of 2,200 employees at JFK, the airline has had only one case of COVID-19, Baldwin said.
And Delta’s dedication to its people goes beyond their health—it also includes allowing them to speak out about causes they care about. A Delta vice-president, Shawn Cole, raised the Black Lives Matter flag at the company’s Atlanta headquarters back in June, at the height of racial justice protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd, and flight attendants and crew were given the opportunity to wear custom-designed pins in support of the cause. (The airline also drew compliments from a Black passenger who was later upgraded to first-class after her White seatmate began harassing her on a flight from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C.)
“We've subscribed to the belief that if we take care of our employees, they, in turn, will take care of you,” said Gordon. “And that has been the truth, and we have seen it time and time in all the crises we've experienced before.”
While it’s unlikely that travel will be fully up-to-speed anytime soon—Delta is only running around 54 flights a day from JFK in October, down from more than 200 per day last year—the airline wants its passengers and crew alike to know that they’re doing everything they can to make flying a safe experience. And it appears that it’s working. (One recent study says you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than catch COVID-19 on a plane.)
It’s an issue that’s deeply personal to Baldwin, who flies every weekend and has done so since the pandemic began. Baldwin, who lives in Kentucky, cares for her 81-year-old father, who has been in and out of the hospital since July.
“The risk is so high because I know if I took anything home to him, in this current state, the likelihood of him making it through is slim to none. I'd drive if I thought for one minute I would put him at risk,” she said. “I hope that people start seeing that there are all kinds of measures in place to try to make everybody feel as comfortable as possible.”
The airline especially wants passengers to feel comfortable as we move into the holidays. While Delta expects some increase in demand, the airline will peak with around 120 flights per day out of JFK; last year, it flew nearly 250. Still, Gordon predicts that passengers will have a renewed desire to see family this year, given the challenges of 2020—and she emphasized that Delta is prepared to keep them safe.
“As we get ready to embark upon the holiday travel time, I don't think there's been a time in our country more that people are just longing for the craziness of the family holidays. You remember how, before, we'd all say, "Maybe not." Now we're like, "Absolutely, we want to be there,” said Gordon.
“We want to let people know that we are ready. We are ready when they are ready to fly. And that we have created an environment that not only should bring them confidence in the travel experience but comfort in the travel experience.”
Main Photo: Courtesy of Delta; Illustration: TripSavvy / Julie Bang