For the first time in a month, passengers on Wednesday boarded a United Airlines flight to Orlando from Newark Liberty International Airport. Staff enforced United’s new protocols: boarding from back to front to minimize passenger interaction and requiring that everyone wear a mask during the entire flight.
The TSA reports airline travel is down 92% due to the pandemic. Travelers admitted to mixed feelings about flying, even as COVID-19 lockdowns continue in many states.
“I am pretty comfortable. A little anxious, but comfortable enough,” said passenger Joanne Morris.
Charlie Hutton, another traveler, said, “I’m nervous about it, to be honest with you. I think they could do better. They just don’t have enough planes flying right now. This plane that I’m going on at 10 o’clock is completely full.”
United added 20 more daily flights out of Newark Wednesday bringing its grand total to 38. It’s aiming for 100 by July. But before COVID-19 virtually grounded the industry, United flew more than 400 flights a day out of Newark.
With first quarter profits nosediving $1.7 billion and shares down 72%, the beleaguered airline’s now pulling out all the stops with a new public relations campaign called, “CleanPlus.”
“We’ve added a lot of extra steps in our cleaning process, including using electrostatic technology on the aircraft as well as increasing our cleaning throughout our facility,” said United Vice President Mike Erbeck.
United set up no touch check-in at kiosks where machines scan a code on your phone and then print your luggage tags. It’s guaranteeing cleaners will wipe down planes between flights and that an electrostatic sprayer can spritz disinfectant into all the nooks and crannies.
But many passengers remember an infamous photo showing a jammed cross-country flight where United promised but failed to keep center row of seats vacant.
United says it’s trying to maintain social distance. Wednesday’s flight to Orlando was 43% full.
“If we go above 70 percent, we’ll actually ask the customers if they don’t feel comfortable and they can actually rebook at that point,” said Erbeck.
The CARES Act funneled $29 billion toward airline payroll support but workers must stay employed through Sept. 30. United’s new CEO Scott Kirby wants unions to consider cutting back hours to avoid furloughs and layoffs. Unions want to save every job they can but have yet to meet with Kirby.
“Let’s make sure that works, so that as the airport picks up, you have those workers badged, ready to go, and as flights pick up, not have a situation where people have been laid off,” said Rob Hill, vice president of 32BJ SEIU.
Unions also want proper personal protective equipment. All workers are getting masks, gloves and temperature checks at United’s Terminal C.
It’s all about passengers regaining confidence. United is hoping if you clean it, they will fly.