Airlines Tout Cleaning Policies to Reassure Travelers Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

Aviation industry could see losses of over $100 billion

a sponge cleaning an airplane
The health risks of flying are much less than other modes of transportation, according to experts. Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Sources: Getty Images

Key insights:

In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, with more than 500 confirmed cases in the United States and climbing, the C-suites of America’s airlines want travelers to know their planes are sanitized and ready to fly.

Over the past week, almost every major airline has sent a letter to ticketed travelers and members of their loyalty programs emphasizing that airlines are still perfectly safe. In each letter, penned by a member of each airline’s executive leadership, carriers are emphasizing their “close communication” with the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization.

Last Friday, JetBlue sent out a letter signed by its vice president of loyalty, Don Uselmann, telling travelers that the airline would be “increasing the rigor of cleaning and sanitizing procedures on our aircraft” and making hand sanitizer available onboard upon request. It also noted that JetBlue had hired its own “medical expert” to help implement best practices.

Southwest Airlines CMO Ryan Green reminded customers that Southwest spends “six to seven hours cleaning each aircraft every night” with an “EPA-approved, hospital-grade disinfectant.” United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz also stressed use of a disinfectant in his letter.

In his note to travelers, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said the airline had established a coronavirus command center at its Atlanta headquarters. It’s also disinfecting touchscreen kiosks “multiple times a day.”

“We understand that in today’s world, travel is fundamental to our business and our lives, which is why it can’t—and shouldn’t—simply stop,” Bastian wrote in the letter. “I believe Delta’s mission of connecting the world and creating opportunities is never more important than at times like this.”

The impact of coronavirus on airlines

There’s good reason for all the reassurance: The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the airline industry’s trade association, predicts industry losses of between $63 billion and $113 billion—more than double its earlier prediction of $29.3 billion in the best case scenario. The IATA also noted that airline share prices have fallen by nearly 25% since the outbreak.

The airline industry does have some unfortunate experience navigating global crises, including the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which cost the industry about $23 billion (adjusted for inflation, that’s almost $34 billion today), according to IATA.

“There’s plenty of precedent,” said Brett Snyder, an aviation expert. “There’s a panic that has taken over the narrative entirely. The actual [health] threat is much lower than the perceived threat, but that actual perceived threat is causing financial carnage, and the airline industry is going to take the brunt of that along with travel in general.”

Airlines have begun preparing for lower demand. United, Delta and American have all announced that they would be cutting capacity both internationally and domestically, as much as 20% in the case of Delta and United.

To reassure travelers who may be on the fence about booking a trip, this week Delta, American and United Airlines expanded their fee waivers for changes and cancellations for flights in March and April. (Notably, Southwest doesn’t charge change fees.)

While it may seem a gesture of goodwill to the cautious traveler, it’s actually just simple marketing. “They are trying to juice bookings because demand is down,” Snyder said. “Nobody is booking.”

Unlike the cruise industry, which is currently fighting an uphill battle to keep customers after the U.S. State Department advised U.S. travelers to “not travel by cruise ship,” airlines have a less daunting task—and planes are generally safe.

“We know that bacteria and viruses can transmit in [enclosed spaces] like airplanes, but airplanes have very efficient air filtration units,” said Dr. Michael Phillips, an infectious disease specialist at New York University. “The ventilation system is keeping you safe; these systems are designed to address air quality.”

@RyanBarwick Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.