DIA and Southwest Airways attempt to calm vacationers’ nerves forward of vacation journey season – Loveland Reporter-Herald
Tom Starr, general manager of Southwest Airlines at Denver International Airport, donned a surgical mask and safety vest Tuesday morning. Shortly after 10 a.m. he drew the attention of the business travel managers gathered around him. He wanted to take her on a tour from the check-in counter to a Southwest gate in Concourse C of the airport, with an emphasis on COVID-19 security and cleaning efforts.
“My goal is to guide you through what travelers will experience,” said Starr, “and to help all of us build some confidence about traveling.”
According to DIA officials, domestic air traffic at the end of September was around 68% lower than at the same time in 2019. 214,459 people passed the airport security lines in the week of September 20-26, 53% fewer than the same week of the year 2019, according to the authorities.
But Denver Airport sees more people than most.
“We have been about 10% above national leverage in terms of recovery for the past few months,” said Kim Day, CEO of DIA. “For many days we were the busiest airport in the US.”
It is a situation where potential travelers find themselves in a difficult position over possible exposure to the coronavirus. Even with 50-60% fewer people passing through the airport, DIA, which served nearly 70 million passengers in 2019, can be a busy place. Any crush at check-in counters, safety lines or on board the DIA train that connects the terminal with the halls can put people off.
Southwest Airlines National Account Manager Jennifer Ferrante, right, speaks to business travel managers about all of the security procedures Southwest Airlines and Denver International Airport have put in place since the start of COVID-19 during a tour on Tuesday, September 29, 2020.
With the critical holiday travel season approaching, airlines like Southwest and airport officials are making every effort to highlight security procedures and new programs to combat the spread of the coronavirus and keep travelers safe enough to return to heaven.
On Tuesday’s tour, Starr highlighted Southwest’s use of electrostatic sprayers to apply disinfectant to check-in counters and kiosks every night. He showed one of the digital thermometers Southwest uses to check every employee’s temperature every day.
Dave Harvey, vice president of business travel for the airline, highlighted Southwest’s efforts to serve corporate customers, including the flexibility to allow those customers to manage funds already invested in unused tickets.
Once through security and out of the train – the domains of the airport – the tour came through a southwest gate. There Starr pointed to a DIA kiosk that was loaded with disinfectant wipes. Much like shopping at a grocery store, passengers can take one as they board the plane and wipe surfaces and touch points, many of which have already been wiped between flights. Southwest also uses a system that allows only 10 passengers to board a plane at a time, reducing lines and crowds. The airline promises empty center seats on all flights by at least November 30th.
Lynelle Lahey, a travel and expense specialist for SCL Health System, was on tour on Tuesday. She was impressed with how far apart the benches at the southwest gate were to make sure people didn’t clump together while they wait to get in. She was also encouraged by the boarding protocol for every 10 passengers.
“The other airlines say they do and they don’t,” said Lahey, who has flown a few times in the past few months.
Tetyana Carlten (left) and business travel manager check social distance signs and boarding waiting area at a Southwest Airlines gate at Denver International Airport on Tuesday, September 29, 2020.
The thing that got Lahey going the most about the tour wasn’t something Southwest is doing, but a new program DIA launched last month called VeriFLY.
As the Chief Operating Officer of DIA, Chris McLaughlin, explained on Tuesday, VeriFLY is a free reservation system with smartphone. It allows people tired and high-risk passengers to book 15-minute blocks in order to get to the halls via a special security line in a reserved train carriage, which facilitates social distancing in these bottlenecks in the DIA experience. The wagons are limited to 12 passengers.
“This will be a crucial thing for people who don’t want to travel because of these problems,” said Lahey.
The airport is still optimizing the program, but the day celebrated VerfiFLY last week.
“We’re really excited about it. It’s something that no other airport offers, ”she said. “Hopefully people will travel who otherwise wouldn’t.”
VeriFLY isn’t the only technology DIA is trying to make airport visits easier on vacation. Later this fall, the airport plans to partner with Atyourgate, Day said. The app, which works like a localized DoorDash or UberEats and enables flyers to order groceries and other retail items at concession stands at the airport and bring them to their gate, limits interaction with other people and increases convenience.
DIA’s main terminal is still in disarray with its beleaguered and now cashless renovation project. Even if far fewer people are likely to walk through the great hall this year compared to last holiday season, according to Day, the airport wants to bring back purple shirts with “ambassadors” to give instructions to travelers and help them navigate.
“We’ll test it over Thanksgiving,” said Day. “We don’t want to create additional density that makes people feel unsafe.”
Southwest Airlines officials take business travel managers on a tour to highlight the safety practices they and Denver International Airport have put in place since COVID-19 to make flying safer.
Tuesday’s Southwest Tour and the DIA app are in free fall against the backdrop of an aviation industry.
Southwest got into the coronavirus crisis with reserves stronger than its competitors and used private loans to avoid layoffs this year. Denver-based Frontier Airlines has signed contracts with its pilots and flight attendants’ unions and no longer expects to lay off workers after it was announced this summer, a spokeswoman said. But the major airlines United Airlines and American Airlines took thousands of workers off last week. More than 900 cuts were expected by United in Denver in early September.
The cuts come as Congress struggles to reach a bipartisan deal on another stimulus package to keep the airline’s staff in place.
Travelers are unlikely to feel the impact of these layoffs, said Michael Boyd, president of Evergreen-based aviation consultancy Boyd Group International. The jobs that were cut were the ones that exceeded demand. If air travel figures stay as low as this year during the holidays and beyond, Boyd expects the aviation industry will be going through a profound downward restructuring.
Boyd hopes potential passengers will overhear Frontier CEO Barry Biffle, who claimed in August that flying on an airplane is “one of the safest things you can do outside of your home”.
With airlines now eliminating change fees and with most planes half full at best, air travel will be less of a problem after years, Boyd said. Add in airport cleaning protocols and programs like DIA’s VeriFLY, and Boyd is ready to argue that airports are less of a risk of infection than grocery stores.
“I was at a small airport in Columbus, Miss., And it was cleaner than an operating room and there were fewer sick people,” he said. “If you’re going anywhere and it’s an airplane, go. Just go.”