From curbside to takeoff: A closer look at Delta's rigorous cleaning process

Category: Transportation

From curbside to takeoff: A closer look at Delta's rigorous cleaning process

Text by Stacey Lastoe, CNN; video by Margaret Dawson and Benjamin Patterson, CNN • Published 9th October 2020

Queens, New York (CNN) — "We were clean before clean was cool," says Stephanie Baldwin.

The VP of Operations for Delta at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City is eager to show off Terminal 4's changes since Covid. From the plexiglass separating check-in agents to the ubiquitous social distancing signage to the antimicrobial bins for travelers' carry-ons, air travel is not what it used to be.

Seats outside the gates instruct travelers to abide by social distancing protocols.

Seats outside the gates instruct travelers to abide by social distancing protocols.

Stacey Lastoe/CNN

Indeed, inside Delta Air Lines' JFK home, surfaces sparkle and hand sanitizer, well, it flows.

It's the same JFK travelers respect (it's a major international hub that can connect you to places all over the world) and dread (it can be crowded and chaotic and traffic to and fro can be brutal) in equal measure, but it's also different.

'Focus on clean'

On a recent morning in JFK's Terminal 4 during an event showcasing Delta's new safety protocols, the hustle and bustle of travelers lugging suitcases, shouldering duffels and steering children makes things feel ... almost normal.

The check-in area swarms with socially distant travelers, the majority of which are headed to Latin America, one of the few international regions US travelers are allowed to go.

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Inside JFK's Terminal 4, passengers heading to Mexico, Chile and the Dominican Republic check in.

Many likely hadn't been on an aircraft since March when the pandemic took hold, and while the late-morning burst of travelers is a positive sign for the airline industry, the largely empty airport suggests the road to recovery and consumer confidence is long and complicated.

Pointing to customers checking in with the electronic check-in option, Baldwin says a member of the cleaning crew is practically waiting behind every customer to wipe down and disinfect any surface touched.

They're taking cleaning seriously, explains Baldwin, and the idea is that the more people see the cleaning in action, the safer they'll feel. The more knowledge they have, the more confident they'll be, the more ready to travel.

"Our whole focus is on clean. We start before the travel and actually even starts before the customer gets to the aircraft or gets to the airport," Baldwin says.

The approach to cleanliness seems to be neither a band-aid nor an afterthought. It's closer to a religion.

But it's not just surface cleanliness upgrades. Delta says most of their aircraft have advanced air filtration systems (HEPA filters) that supposedly extract nearly 100% of viruses. The aircraft filters also recirculate air from outside, according to Delta's website.

Just three questions

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Antimicrobial bins have replaced the old, gray plastic bins for carry-ons to pass through security. The chemistry of these bins makes them safer, but the bins are also sprayed after each use.

Baldwin says since June, the airport has had just one case of Covid-19, a point of pride considering New York City's status as the epicenter of the coronavirus earlier this year.

Surfaces are wiped down seemingly constantly, but it's not just up to the cleaning crews to keep things safe.

Inside JFK, as on every Delta flight, masks are mandatory.

They may be removed when actively eating or drinking, but, otherwise, they must be worn correctly so that they cover both the nose and mouth. Gate agents, flight attendants and other airport personnel won't hesitate to tell passengers to pull a mask up or down if it's being worn incorrectly, she says?

This mandate won't come as a surprise to most and certainly not to those who use the Delta app, which aims to connect intimately with travelers, to ready them for the experience ahead.

When travelers check in using the Delta app, they are asked three questions

-Have you been diagnosed positive?

-Are you showing any symptoms? Have you been exposed to anyone with symptoms?

The third question is more of a statement, Baldwin explains: "Passengers agree to comply with our mask -- requirements throughout the duration of your entire travel ribbon from the time you step out of your car on the curbside to when you exit the airport."

Social distancing reminders

One of the newest features at JFK is the signage. Dotting the floors, marking the gate seats, even on the jet bridge to the aircraft, social distancing signs are everywhere.

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Covid-era signs are found throughout JFK.

Social distancing is required at the security checkpoint too. Instead of travelers making their way to any open carry-on bin, signs instruct people not traveling together to leave space between themselves and other passengers.

Once airport travel picks up again, this security protocol may slow things down some, but Baldwin and her colleagues say they've thought of all that. Flight departure times and capacity and gate size will all be considered as Delta and other airlines begin increasing departures.

Carry-on screening for security is socially distanced and safer and cleaner thanks to the use of new antimicrobial bins. Less susceptible to bacteria (the chemistry is complicated, says Baldwin), the Covid-era bins are nonetheless sprayed down after every single use.

Passengers traveling with laptop computers will still need to remove the device and place it by itself in one of the bins. Germaphobes with Delta Sky Club access, however, can take their computers straight from the bin to the lounge for a deep 90-second cleaning in a 360-degree UV-C disinfection device.

The sleek-looking machine is currently being piloted in Atlanta but may soon make its way to a permanent home in JFK.

In the club

At first glance, the Sky Club doesn't appear terribly changed, but meander around the large space and a few things will come into focus: Fewer seats (50% less furniture, in fact), social distancing floor markers, hand sanitizing stations and individually wrapped food items.

Gone is the smorgasbord of a buffet, touting everything from Italian pasta salad to chicken stew, and in its place are cold packaged food items to grab and go. Hot food was recently reintroduced and is served to guests by staff members on the other side of the food stations.

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The Sky Club does not allow patrons to sit at the bar, and ordering must be done on the other side of the plexiglass.

In spite of the lounge's seating arrangements, there may come a time when the JFK Sky Club has to refuse entry to travelers. Think of it as a one-in, one-out situation during busy periods.

As flights increase around the holidays, it's possible the club will reach capacity, but it's not an immediate concern given the slow return to air travel.

Holidays on the horizon

Just nine flights were scheduled for departure on the late morning of CNN Travel's recent visit, and one of those nine was marked canceled on the departures screen in the terminal.

"We are increasing our flight schedule through the holiday schedule and looking forward to that," says Baldwin, adding that Delta will not be changing their seating policy around keeping the center seat blocked.

"That will not change. Capping our load factors will not change, nor will our planning processes or any experience like that. So, yes, we're adding flights, but we're going to keep all the same crew and processes in place."

Arnold Barnett, a professor of statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, tried to quantify the odds of becoming infected with the virus while on board a short flight in a recent study that looked at the benefits of the empty middle seat policy.

According to his findings, based on short haul flights in the US on aircraft configured with three seats on either side of the aisle, such as the Airbus 320 and the Boeing 737 -- and assuming everyone is wearing a mask -- the risk of catching the virus on a full flight is just 1 in 4,300. Those odds fall to 1 in 7,700 if the middle seat is vacant.

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The departures screen looks far different than it used to.

More flights leads to more people leads to social distancing challenges, but Delta says they've already thought through all that. As the number of departures increases, Delta will be carefully plotting and planning around gates' departure times and aircraft sizes to limit high volumes of people in any one area of the flight journey.

"There is no greater priority for us than the health and well being of our employees and customers," says Sandy Gordon, SVP of Airport Operations, West.

As such, the mask policy remains an important piece of keeping both employees and passengers safe.

"If people don't want to wear a mask, then unfortunately they're not going to have the opportunity to fly with us," Baldwin says, noting that Delta's no-fly list currently contains about 400 people.

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On a recent visit to Terminal 4 at JFK, there appeared to be almost as many cleaning staff as travelers.

Delta Air Lines is happy to provide a surgical-type mask for passengers needing a face covering.

Masks with respirators are not allowed on flights and passengers boarding with such a mask will be asked to use the provided covering and to keep it on throughout the flight except when actively eating or drinking.

"If a flight attendant observes them without their mask on or pulled down over their nose or mouth, they'll just be gently reminded to pull it back up," Baldwin explains.

Passengers boarding a Delta flight will also receive two packets of Purell hand sanitizer, though the aircraft are also in the process of being outfitted with hand sanitizing stations outside all lavatories.

As Gordon notes, it's become second nature to use the restroom, wash your hands and then apply hand sanitizer.

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Electrostatic spray

After every flight, aircraft are disinfected. The high-grade disinfectant involves a de-fogging process that's sprayed on all high-touch surfaces. This includes overhead bins, seats, tray tables, armrests, door handles.

Basically, everything but the cockpit, which contains vital instruments, is bathed in the very fine mist that smells potent in the moment but doesn't linger.

Before Covid-19, the spray cleaning -- electrostatic spraying -- wasn't part of the aircraft's cleaning process, but Baldwin maintains it's not much different than how they cleaned before.

In addition to the deep disinfecting that takes place on every Delta aircraft after it lands and passengers have deplaned, cleaning crews are continuing to wipe down high-touch surfaces at the ticket counters, baggage areas and throughout the terminal.

Delta Air Lines plans to increase its number of flights during the holiday season.

Delta Air Lines plans to increase its number of flights during the holiday season.

Delta's transparent cleaning protocols are meant to instill a sense of confidence in the wary traveler, at the same time ensuring a clean and safe environment. But there's another piece to the Covid-19 flying conundrum: Passenger behavior.

Baldwin is confident about the work being done at JFK and at Delta, but she's realistic too. "We're also relying on people to do the right thing and take care of themselves."

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