The Slatest

Here’s What COVID-19 Precautions Look Like for Different Airlines

A pilot walks by a window, through which multiple parked United Airlines planes are visible.
A pilot in San Francisco International Airport in April.* Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has upended countless industries, including commercial aviation. Given flight cancellations, travel bans, and employee layoffs, an aviation trade group projects industrywide losses of $97 billion for 2020. But with the Fourth of July fast approaching, it’s likely that more people will risk COVID-19 exposure for the sake of a summer getaway, and airlines are optimistic. This month, Delta is adding back 100 more flights than it originally planned, and Southwest expects to fill up to 45 percent of its seats, a major upswing from the 8 percent it filled in April.

Those who decide to travel should brace for new safety provisions at airports and aboard planes. Although some measures, like increased social distancing and enhanced cleaning procedures, have become industry standards, many airlines are taking distinct approaches to new health and safety policies. Here is a breakdown of how some domestic and international carriers are changing procedures on their flights.

American Airlines

Boarding: American Airlines says it is encouraging social distancing throughout the boarding process, but the airline is continuing to board based on ticket type, status, and priority, rather than the back-to-front order other airlines are using. Customers aren’t thrilled.

Seat spacing: The airline vows to keep limiting the number of passengers on each flight (but does not mention by how much), but some tweets suggest American passengers will have to keep competing for armrests:

Gate agents may reassign seats at the last minute to allow for added social distancing or to seat families together. Its website also states that passengers may switch seats within their cabin after boarding is completed. But when Elgin Banks attempted to do so on May 31, he was removed from the flight, as were passengers who came to his defense. Banks, who is Black, and multiple other passengers have filed a discrimination lawsuit against American.

Update, June 26, 4:45 p.m.: American said today that some flights will be booked to capacity starting July 1. The airline says it will continue to allow customers to change to more open flights, when available, at no cost.

Cleaning: American says it is using HEPA filters and is increasing its use of a hospital-grade disinfectant. Airline staff is deep cleaning high-contact surfaces like seat belt buckles, tray tables, armrests, and window shades, though American hasn’t specified how often. Wipes and hand sanitizer will be available on some domestic flights over 900 miles and on most international flights. American also plans to implement a cleaning method called fogging.

Mask protocol: The airline says masks are required, except for young children and passengers with health conditions that prevent them from wearing one. Those who refuse to wear one may be banned from future travel with American Airlines, as one passenger learned recently.

First class: On domestic flights, only these customers will be able to order a beer or cocktail. (Everyone can still imbibe on long-haul international flights.)

Delta Air Lines

Boarding: Delta will board its aircraft back to front, and the company says it will only board 10 passengers at a time. Passengers on long-haul international flights will get amenity kits, which include hand cleanser or cleansing towelettes.

Seat spacing: Delta is blocking all middle seats. Seating is capped at 50 percent for first class and 60 percent for the main cabin.

Cleaning: Delta is using electrostatic spraying and fogging to sanitize its aircraft before every flight, cleaning lavatories during and after flights, and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces like armrests and overhead bin handles.

Mask protocol: Everyone must wear masks, starting at check-in points in airport lobbies.

Also: Delta has banned alcohol on all domestic flights, in addition to flights to Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. The airline also has struggled with its customer service, leaving many travelers at their wits’ end trying to get through to representatives.

United Airlines

Boarding: United says it will board fewer customers at a time, and it will also board its planes from the back to the front. Passengers will be asked to self-scan their boarding passes, and the carrier says it will provide passengers with hand sanitizer wipes as they enter the aircraft.

Seat spacing: United says it is making adjustments to online seat selection to stop travelers from sitting next to one another, depending on the aircraft. After facing media backlash over full flights, United has promised to contact passengers 24 hours in advance of their departure time if their flight is full. The passenger may then choose whether to book a different flight free of charge or receive a travel credit toward future travel.

Cleaning: All United aircraft have a HEPA filter. United is implementing electrostatic sprays and fogging into its cabin cleaning procedures and will disinfect all customer touch points before flights.

Mask protocol: Masks are required. Travelers who refuse to wear masks will be placed on an internal travel restriction list.

JetBlue Airlines

Boarding: JetBlue will board planes from the back to the front.

Seat spacing: JetBlue, which claims that its aircraft have more space between each row than other U.S. airlines, is blocking middle seats on larger aircraft and blocking most aisle seats on smaller aircraft. Crew members will review seating assignments, ensuring that passengers have as much space as possible. JetBlue plans to make “buffer zones” around in-flight crew member jump seats as well.

Cleaning: JetBlue says it is disinfecting tray tables and lavatories before every flight. It also will provide hand sanitizer and cleansing wipes to travelers in terminals and aboard flights upon request. The carrier is conducting deep cleans on a nightly basis, using a hospital-grade disinfectant and electrostatic sprayers. During these cleanings, staff focus on high-contact surfaces like seat covers, armrests, and seat belts. Like other carriers, JetBlue has equipped its planes with HEPA air filters.

Mask protocol: JetBlue was the first airline to require passengers to wear masks throughout their travel days, and this mandate remains in place.

Also: JetBlue is conducting routine temperature checks for customer-facing crew members.

Spirit Airlines

Boarding: Spirit is encouraging social distancing and asking travelers to scan their boarding passes during the boarding process.

Seat spacing: Shocking almost no one, Spirit is not blocking middle-seat reservations and warns customers that some flights may be fuller than others. Customers are not pleased.

Cleaning: Spirit is using an ultralow-volume fogging process to disinfect its aircraft, in addition to HEPA filters and increased cleaning of frequently touched surfaces like handles, seat belt buckles, and armrests.

Mask protocol: All passengers except young children are required to wear masks. Though Spirit’s website says that its staff are also required to wear masks, not all appear to be following that rule.

Also: Spirit says it is working with local governments and embassies in the U.S., Latin America, and the Caribbean to provide humanitarian flights to citizens who are trying to return home. Customers are taking to social media to express their frustrations over Spirit’s failure to manage refunds and coronavirus-related flight cancellations.

Southwest Airlines 

Boarding: Turns out all it takes is a pandemic to get Southwest to tweak its chaotic boarding practices. Passengers will board Southwest flights in groups of 10.

Seat spacing: Southwest does not assign seats and will not block middle seats. However, the carrier is limiting the number of reservations per flight, so the middle seat can provide social distancing for unrelated passengers seated in the same row.

Cleaning: Southwest says it spends upward of six hours cleaning each plane every night using hospital-grade disinfectant. It equips all flights with HEPA filters.

Mask protocol: All passengers must wear masks, but Twitter indicates this rule isn’t always enforced.

Alaska Airlines

Boarding: Alaska says it will space out boarding groups to promote social distancing and prevent jetway crowding.

Seat spacing: Alaska is capping reservations at 65 percent capacity, and it is blocking middle seat reservations through July 31. Passengers who want to sit next to one another may request to do so in advance, either online or at the airport. (I flew Alaska on June 20. With no one else in my row, I had more than enough space to feel at ease throughout the six-hour flight.)

Cleaning: The airline is investing more time into cleaning protocols as well, including sanitizing frequently touched surfaces.

Mask protocol: All passengers must wear masks.

Also: Alaska is removing all seatback contents save the safety card. It has also nixed entertainment tablets on most flights to make room for additional trash carts.

British Airways

Boarding: British Airways expects passengers to self-scan their boarding passes.

Seat spacing: British Airways’ website makes no mention of seating-specific safety protocols.

Cleaning: The carrier says it will disinfect “key surfaces” such as seats, tray tables, seat belt buckles, toilets, and armrests before and after each flight. British Airways also equips its aircraft with HEPA filters.

Mask protocol: Passengers must wear a face mask at all times. The airline says it provides passengers with a personal protection pack, complete with an antibacterial wipe and hand sanitizer.

Emirates

Boarding: Emirates says employees wear full personal protective equipment during the boarding process and flight. Like domestic airlines, Emirates will board passengers in small groups, starting with the last row of the aircraft. Passengers may only bring a laptop bag, handbag, briefcase, or baby items into the cabin.

Seat spacing: Emirates’ website does not mention any seating-specific safety measures.

Cleaning: Emirates aircraft is equipped with HEPA filters, and on flights over 90 minutes, a member of the cabin crew is tasked with cleaning the lavatories during the flight. Aircraft are disinfected following every trip.

Mask protocol: Passengers must wear masks. The airline will give each person a complimentary hygiene kit that includes a mask as well as antibacterial wipes, gloves, and hand sanitizer.

Ryanair

Boarding: The airline says passengers will need to check in online and bring fewer bags. Passengers are also required to practice social distancing around the gate and in the walkway, and they will have their temperatures checked upon arrival.

Seat spacing: The no-frills airline is not blocking middle seats.  

Cleaning: Ryanair disinfects all interior aircraft surfaces on a nightly basis.

Mask protocol: The carrier is encouraging passengers to wear face coverings.

Also: Ryanair will require travelers to ask to use the toilet, and it has limited its onboard services to prepackaged snacks and drinks. The airline has once again stirred up some controversy over its plan to restore 40 percent of its flights by July 1. CEO Michael O’Leary called U.K. quarantine regulations “idiotic and unimplementable.”

Turkish Airlines

Boarding: Passengers will board in small groups, and all aspects of the boarding process (including passport scans) are no-contact. Travelers will only be allowed to have one personal belonging, such as a laptop, purse, camera, or umbrella, in the cabin. All other belongings must be checked or stowed in the overhead bins.

Seat spacing: Though Turkish Airlines is encouraging social distancing, its website does not mention restrictions on seat reservations or reduced booking capacities.

Cleaning: All contact points are disinfected following each flight. Afterward, Turkish Airlines staff use fogging to further clean the plane.

Mask protocol: The airline requires all passengers to wear masks. The airline will provide each passenger with a hygiene kit that includes a mask as well as an antiseptic tissue and hand sanitizer.

Also: Turkish citizens age 65 and over must obtain a travel permit document from the Turkish government to board a flight, and all passengers should expect to have their temperatures checked at the airport.

Correction, June 26, 2020: The photo caption originally misspelled San Francisco.