Air travel in Washington state is set to get updated procedures for health and safety in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic as Gov. Jay Inslee announced new protocols Thursday, while airline leaders spoke of what they have been doing to assure passengers and crews aren’t at high risk for infection.
During a press conference Sept. 24, Inslee announced new protocols that will be applied to airports across the state. The governor said that face coverings would be required for all individuals “upstream” of security lines. Signage will be placed regarding physical distancing, and barriers will be put in place between workers and passengers.
Airport vendors and businesses will be required to follow state and county health protocols, Inslee added, and sanitizing procedures would be put in place. He said airlines were encouraged to provide health screening questionnaires for passengers.
Inslee said the new protocols were “baseline” with individual airlines going beyond the requirements in some cases.
Alaska Air Group Vice President for Safety and Security Max Tidwell said over the past seven months Alaska Air has implemented more than 100 different procedures in a “layered approach” to combat the spread of COVID-19, ranging from a “no mask, no travel” policy to blocking center seating and some seats on regional flights to provide spacing between passengers.
Tidwell added Alaska Air has been using multiple sanitation systems and high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which he said were “proven to be 99.9-plus-percent effective” on filtering viruses similar to the one that causes COVID-19.
Delta Airlines Regional Vice President Tony Gonchar said his airline has blocked middle seating through Jan. 6, adding Delta employees have access to rapid COVID-19 testing that he said could render results in as little as 15 minutes.
Beginning Oct. 1, Delta will begin a pilot program for outbound flights at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for temperature screening, Gonchar said. A thermal camera will be located at the airport’s Checkpoint Two running during the mornings Thursday through Monday, which will monitor passengers. Those who register a high temperature will be asked to take a secondary no-touch temperature screening, with those with a temperature above 100.4 degrees fahrenheit will be rebooked or refunded and placed on a health restriction list for 14 days.
In some cases changes weren’t temporary among airlines, as Tidwell said that Alaska Air had eliminated change fees across its systems “permanently” as part of its response. Gonchar said Delta has established a “global cleanliness division” that he said would be a permanent fixture of the airline.
Both Gonchar and Tidwell said their airlines’ enforcement of face mask requirements meant that passengers who do not comply will be added to no-fly lists preventing them from future flights until the end of the pandemic. Gonchar said Delta had already done so for about 300 non-compliant passengers, with Tidwell adding that once a plane lands Alaska Air cancels the rest of the passenger’s trip and provides them a refund.
“We happily welcome them back when a mask is no longer required,” Tidwell remarked.
Inslee noted he has asked for the federal government to adopt national standards for air travel, though he said the Trump Administration has refused to make changes, limiting what states themselves can do for protection of travelers and air travel workers.
Port of Seattle Aviation Division Managing Director Lance Lyttle said SeaTac was also in support of national standards, noting he had seen a “slow uptick” in the number of passengers in the past two months following a 95-percent drop seen in March and April.
Lyttle said a majority of passengers surveyed believed the airport has taken the necessary steps to keep them healthy. He said those surveyed were overwhelmingly in support of rapid testing being available across the board at the airport, adding SeaTac was currently looking into how it would be able to provide testing at a large scale.
Though air travel had “fundamentally changed” since the pandemic began, Tidwell said safety had remained a priority for the airline. He said Alaska Air has worked with other airlines and parts of the industry in an effort to regain trust in air travel.
“If we don’t all work together as an industry, we are not going to create the opportunity to bring people back,” Gonchar remarked.
Tidwell referenced a recent study from Harvard University’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative which he said validated the use of face masks in air travel as being “very effective,” especially when used in conjunction with other mitigation protocols.
“We know that our precautions are working, but everybody has a different indication of what their risk tolerance is going to be,” Gonchar said.