HOUSTON - The airline industry has been hit, particularly hard, by the COVID-19 pandemic, as carriers expect to lose tens of billions of dollars because few people are flying.
On a recent afternoon, at Bush Intercontinental Airport, the familiar roar of jet engines gave the sense of 'business as usual', but the nearly-empty terminals prove it is not. In March, United Airlines was flying around 550 nearly-full jets in and out of Houston, each day. In August, there are fewer than half as many flights and passengers. "It is completely different, today," says United's Houston operations VP, Rodney Cox.
Cox says encouraging people to fly, again, has required a reimagination of how people come and go to keep them safe. 'Everything that we do through that whole journey is different and new," says Cox, "And it's there to protect the customers and our employees."
At check-in, automated kiosks have been reprogrammed to avoid touching any surfaces and checking bags without having to come face-to-face with an attendant.
Onboard the jets, passenger compartments are sanitized before each flight; Passengers and flight crew will all wear masks; Boarding is strictly back-to-front; Food an beverages are all pre-packaged to minimize touch and contact. They are practices described as the best ideas, for now. "Things are changing and evolving, sometimes on a daily basis," says United inflight supervisor Dan Garcia, "If there's a way that we can makes things better, we're gonna do that."
Another safety-measure is the plane's air filtration, which was in-place before the pandemic. HEPA-filters that catch almost all contaminants are designed to help clean and replace the air every few minutes. "The filtration and the air that you breathe, on the airplane, is that hospital-grade air," says United maintenance technical Jorge Garcia, "In many aspects, (it's) cleaner than the air you're breathing at your own house."
In an age where social distancing is a concern, for many, United says it is not blocking-out any seating, on flights. Rodney Cox says the levels of protection, before passengers get on board are more effective.
They are changes that will remain in place for the foreseeable future, while the airline slowly tries to build back their capacity to fly. There's a lot at stake. United has put more than 30,000 employees on notice that they could be furloughed, this fall, as demand stays low.