To Survive, Airlines Start to Take Employee Temperatures, But Passengers and Workers Say More Is Needed

Carriers Plan for the Worst and Hope for the Best

By Jonathan Spira on 14 April 2020
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When the world starts returning to whatever its new normal will be, the number of customers returning to restaurants, bars, and airports will certainly lag behind those going to their hair stylists, dentists, and garden shops.

Travel has essentially ground to a halt.  If photos on social media of empty planes wasn’t enough to convince you, the Transportation Security Administration, which operates security checkpoints at most airports in the United States, reports that the number of people being screened at those checkpoints is down 96% in recent days.

A recent Frequent Business Traveler survey found that 97% of premium and business travelers surveyed had no intention of flying until there is solid data showing that the destination is no longer suffering from the pandemic and until there are sufficient protections in place for both passengers and cabin crew.

Airline executives are unquestionably among the most pessimistic about a return to pre-Coronavirus Age flight levels and their customers may be the most reluctant. After all, the novel coronavirus mostly made its way to the United states via aircraft, and, while people can cook their meals at home avoiding restaurants, they can’t (with a few exceptions) fly themselves somewhere in their own aircraft.

Almost every major international company has put all travel on hold, as have roughly 90% of domestic companies in the United States, and no one, not even the airlines, know when this will all come to an end.

This includes Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“The virus determines the timetable,” he is fond of saying.

Indeed, it’s not only how long doctors and scientists expect the virus to spread but how long it will take the global economy to begin to repair itself, a process that could take years.  Once the lockdowns begin to end in the United States (they have been lifted in many parts of China; Austria, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Norway, and Poland plan to take baby steps in lifting theirs next week), what is expected to be a general economic downturn will result in travelers’ seeking less expensive options. Meanwhile, if the corporate world does learn how to finally harness online conferencing, many may continue using that mode of communication, causing a drastic drop in business travel.

Indeed, “empty airlines create anxiety” for the airline industry, said American Airlines CEO Doug Parker in a video address to employees.  “Connecting people and making the world a smaller place is what we do“ and “when people stay home, we start to worry,” he said.

But airplanes may remain empty, or sitting on the ground, for months.

“We expect demand to remain suppressed for months after that, possibly into next year,” said United CEO Oscar Muniz in a memorandum to employees in late March. “We will continue to plan for the worst and hope for a faster recovery.”

His sentiments were echoed more recently by a competitor.

“I wish I could predict this would end soon, but the reality is we simply don’t know how long it will take before the virus is contained and customers are ready to fly again,” said Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian in a memorandum to the airline’s employees last week.

As of Thursday, those airlines still flying have slashed up to 96% of their flying schedules and grounded aircraft but are nonetheless taking steps to restore confidence for when the flying public does return.

Many airlines – American, Delta, and United amongst them – are using a new method to clean their aircraft. They are fogging the cabins with a high-grade EPA-registered disinfectant that is highly effective against many communicable diseases,  including the novel coronavirus.

The biggest single thing airline can do to bolster the confidence of the flying public is to ensure the health of its employees that interact with customers. While there remain many unknowns concerning the transmission of the virus, symptoms of Covid-19 include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath.  McDonald’s recently instituted a company-wide wellness check program that includes having each employee answer a series of questions that cover possible symptoms and exposure upon arrival to their place of employment.  If an employee answers “yes” to any question, he will be sent home and will not be eligible to return to work until cleared by a medical professional. McDonald’s told FBT that it has already secured thermometers and will quickly roll them out to all of its restaurants, adding temperature checks to the wellness checks already in progress.

Last week, New York City began taking the temperatures of its bus, subway, and train workers, a move necessitated by the number of Metropolitan Transportation Authority employees who have died from the novel coronavirus.

The MTA is stationing crews referred to as “temperature brigades” at 22 locations to take workers’ temperatures.  Anyone with a reading of 100.4° F (38° C) or higher will be sent home. The agency said that  temperature brigades will be able to test over 2,000 people per day, although that only begins to cover the agency’s 50,000 frontline workers.

What McDonald’s and the City of New York are doing hasn’t been lost on airline CEOs.

United Airlines has begun to conduct private and confidential temperature checks for airport and network operations employees.

“These precautions will create an additional layer of protection for our people and our customers as we continue to keep safety at the center of everything that we do,” United spokesman Charles Hobart told FBT in an e-mail interview.

United’s temperature check take place prior to the start of shifts and, if an employee’s fever is 100° F (37.8° C) or higher, a clinician will conduct a second temperature check ten minutes later to confirm the reading before following CDC guidelines for handling suspected cases of the novel coronavirus.  Those employees presenting a fever or other symptoms will be sent home.

The Chicago-based airline has introduced this program out at Newark Liberty International Airport for crewmembers and plans to roll it out to other hubs as quickly as possible.

Delta Air Lines told FBT it is conducting temperature screenings at its headquarters in Atlanta and said it is rolling out such screenings “across our system.”

The airline has also made fever thermometers available to pilots and flight attendants in airport crew lounges so that they can voluntarily self-monitor their temperatures.

American is taking similar measures.

“We have implemented team member temperature checks at key locations throughout our system, including our integrated operations center, hub control centers, and where local ordinances mandate checks,” said Michelle Mohr, a spokesman for American Airlines.

Even with all these measures, not all are satisfied. The deaths of two flight attendants, Paul Frishkorn, 65, an American Airlines employee based in Philadelphia who died on March 23 and had started his career with US Airways in 1997, and Ralph Gismondi, 68, a New York-based JetBlue Airways employee who had been with the airline for over a decade, demonstrates that such airline  workers are on the front lines.

The death of the two “underlines the risk to our members who continue to work as ‘essential workers’ in the airlines,” said Lori Bassani, a past president of the Association for Professional Flight Attendants, which represents employees at American.

“There is nothing they can do to make me feel safe to fly right now,” said one Delta flight attendant told FBT.  “There are too many unknowns about the transmission of the virus.”

Another flight attendant, who did not want the name of his airline to be publicly disclosed, said that he was taking a six-month leave and hoped this would all be resolved by the time he returns.

“I am as worried of getting infected as I am worried about infecting passengers or being an asymptomatic carrier and infecting family members or close friends,” he said.

Taking the temperature of the flying public might help but that is something that is beyond the purview of the airlines.

“It is important to recognize that employees of U.S. airlines are not public health officials,“ said Katherine Estep, a spokesman for Airlines for America, an industry trade group representing major U.S. carriers. “All screening processes for the traveling public are – and always will be – the responsibility of the federal government.“

Meanwhile, everyone, including airline executives, hopes that the coronavirus crisis will not linger.

“We all hope and expect that this health crisis will be behind us,” said Doug Parker, referencing the September 30, 2020 date until which airlines stipulate they will not furlough any employees if they accept government funding.

“If airlines were downsized absent government support, we would all have little choice but to seriously reduce flying,” he added

It took some 50 years from the dawn of the Jet Age to 2020 to bring air traffic to unprecedented levels – and fewer than 12 weeks to destroy that growth.  What will follow no one really knows but one thing is certain, namely that the airline industry will never be the same again.

Anna Breuer and Kurt Stolz contributed reporting to this story.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

Accura News

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