Airlines, airports fly blind without federal coordination of COVID-19 safety protocols

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — U.S. airlines are adding flights back to their schedules as demand slowly rebounds from record-low levels at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. But the lack of direction about safety precautions governing flying during the pandemic — such as requiring passengers to wear face masks and checking their temperatures before flights — has created confusion among passengers and workers.

And neither the Federal Aviation Administration nor the Transportation Security Administration has implemented COVID-19 safety protocols to guide airports or airlines.

Delta Airlines customer service agent Monica Miller wears a protective mask and is guarded by a plastic shield as she assist a customer inside the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Romulus.

At Detroit Metro Airport, passengers and employees are required to wear masks at all times in terminals unless they have a medical condition that would prevent them from wearing a face covering.

Airport officials have suspended tram service in the McNamara Terminal to prevent spread of the virus within the confines of those cars, and they have increased the frequency of cleaning and added hand-sanitizing stations in heavy traffic areas.

Lorri Cwick of Lake Orion flew on a Delta Air Lines flight from Detroit Metro to Seattle on Friday. It was her first time on a plane since the week before Michigan's stay-at-home order was implemented in March. She said passengers wore masks on her flight and middle seats were kept empty.

"The plane wasn't very full," she said. "They gave us everything in bags, water, snacks, but no meal. Everything was enclosed. ... I have my hand sanitizer and my mask. I was very cautious."

Cwick said after she landed in Seattle, she overheard passengers on other flights complaining about middle seats not being kept vacant.

"I talked to some people who said American was packed to the hilt," she said. "I'm not sure I would feel too safe flying like that." 

One of many signs signaling social distancing and sanitizing stations alerts travelers as they enter the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metro Airport.

In the absence of clear guidance from the federal government, airlines have taken steps to enforce penalties for passengers who refuse to wear masks. American last week removed a conservative activist from a flight for such a refusal, banning him from flights until the rules are relaxed.

In addition to requiring masks, some airlines say they are keeping middle seats open — although passengers have disputed those claims on social media. 

American Airlines does not currently have a policy of keeping middle seats empty, but the airline says it is allowing passengers who are "booked on fuller flights to rebook on more open flights when available, all without incurring additional cost." 

Airlines are also asking passengers to avoid traveling if they have temperatures higher than 100 degrees, but industry leaders admit they are largely taking passengers at their word. Frontier Airlines in May became the first airline to check temperatures at gates before boarding. No other airlines have followed suit.

Airlines for America, which lobbies for airlines in Washington, argues that temperatures should be checked by TSA workers before passengers arrive in the gate area. The agency said Monday it is not conducting temperature checks of passengers at any airports. 

A group of travelers wear protective masks as they prepare for check in with Delta Airlines inside the McNamara Terminal at DTW in Romulus.

"At this time, no decision has been made regarding specific health screening measures at airports," the agency said in a statement. It said TSA continues to rely on the health expertise of the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lisa Gass, a spokeswoman for the Wayne County Airport Authority, confirmed Monday there have been 74 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the airport's approximately 16,190 "badged employees," which includes airport workers, contractors, concessionaires, tenants and vendors.

The cases at Detroit Metro include 11 TSA workers, including a screening officer who worked as recently as June 14, according to the agency. Nationwide, TSA says 706 of its approximately 50,000 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, including five who have died.

In a conference call with company shareholders on Thursday, Delta CEO Ed Bastian said 500 of the company’s 90,000-plus employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Ten have died. 

"The vast majority have recovered, thankfully," he said. "Unfortunately, we have lost 10 employees to the disease, and every one of them breaks my heart." 

Delta Airlines customer service agents Patrice Johnson, left, and Monica Miller wears a protective mask and are guarded by a plastic shield as they assist a customer inside the McNamara Terminal at DTW.

Staying grounded

On Monday, 607,540 passengers passed through security checkpoints at U.S. airports, according to the TSA. That's fewer than a quarter of the 2,716,428 passengers who flew on the same day of the week in 2019, but it was far more than the 348,673 who cleared TSA checkpoints on the same day a month ago.

At Detroit Metro, passenger traffic was down approximately 49% year to date through the end of May compared to the same period a year ago, according to Gass. In May alone, traffic plunged by nearly 91% compared to May 2019, going from 3,266,191 passengers last May to just 295,929.

Delta, which is normally the largest carrier at Detroit Metro, is operating 128 daily departures from the airport this month, down from 420 before the virus hit. The airline is planning to add 64 more departures in July, bringing the number to 192. On Monday, the airline said it is resuming flights to China from two cities, including a weekly flight from Detroit, making it the first U.S. airline to fly there since February.

This is one of many hand sanitizer stations for travelers inside the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metro Airport.

Less than 20% of Americans surveyed say they feel safe or very safe traveling by air, according to recent polls conducted by Destination Analysts. Fifty-two percent said they won't fly until at least January.

Airlines and other businesses in the travel sector know they are going to have to convince travelers that appropriate precautions are being taken, said Tori Emerson Barnes, executive vice president of public affairs and policy at the U.S. Travel Association.

"We really think there needs to be clear and consistent guidelines across the industry," she said. "There need to be appropriate barriers. In a situation like an airplane, where you can't have 6 feet, you have to wear a mask."

Until there's a vaccine, she said, "most folks want to see what do the public officials say, what are the cleaning protocols at the places I'm going to go."

FAA Administrator Stephen Dickerson told a panel of U.S. senators Wednesday that he believes airline passengers should wear face masks, although the Trump administration has steered clear of issuing such a mandate. 

Lorri Cwick of Lake Orion waits for her flight inside the McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus. She wears a protective face mask in the terminal.

He told the panel that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and the Department of Transportation "have been clear that air passengers should wear face coverings to protect themselves and those around them, and that we expect the traveling public to follow aircrew directions and airline public health policies."

He made no mention of impending federal regulations that would guide airlines and airports. 

A day later, Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, told a U.S. House panel that flight attendants and other airline employees need more backing from the federal government to enforce health-safety rules.

"Without clear instructions from government and airlines to passengers and crews, proper training or federal enforcement," she said, "flight attendants are left to manage a hodgepodge of airline policies on the front lines."

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing