Airline industry hit hard by pandemic says it’s pushing back to keep passengers safe

At first glance, it looks like a super soaker. But the device, called an electrostatic sprayer, is no toy.

It has the serious task of keeping a commercial airliner COVID free.

“We’ve completely revolutionized the way we clean the airplanes, the products we use,” says Nicholas Wilkerson, the General Manager of United Airlines in Minneapolis. “An electrostatic spray disinfectant process, which is exceptionally effective at making the airplane safe to fly, and eliminating the coronavirus.”

The new device, and other safety measures used on United flights, are being introduced at a challenging time for the airline industry.

United has announced plans to furlough over 16,000 employees on October 1st.

That’s the day federal restrictions against layoffs (under the Cares Act) expire.

American Airlines plans to furlough more than 17,000 employees. Delta is furloughing almost 2,000 pilots this fall.

All this, as people are staying home, and some don’t expect traveling to return to normal until there is a widely available treatment or vaccine.

Then there’s Mary Ostrander, who flew from Bend, Oregon to Minneapolis-St. Paul.

“They spray, the wipe, they make you wear a mask,” she says. “ I studied the risk. You know, I wanted to see my kid, so I decided to come.”

United Airlines took a 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS crew onto one of their planes to show how the cleaning process works. A spokesperson says the electrostatic sprayer turns a disinfectant solution, which includes bleach, into an aerosol fog.

The airline says the device electrically charges each droplet, so it sticks to a surface with a force greater than gravity.

"The thing I’m mostly afraid of in my life right now is catching it, not knowing it, and giving it to someone else,” Ostrander declares.

To alleviate those fears, the airlines are turning to science. United is testing UV light wands in its cockpits. JetBlue is conducting UV trials with a device that extends arms over each row of seats while moving up and down the aisle.

Experts say the ultraviolet light changes the genetic makeup of the coronavirus, keeping it from replicating.

"It’s simple to use, and it’s quick,” Wilkerson said. “And if you can make something simple, effective, and quick, it becomes a great tool to utilize."

United is also using HEPA-filters, designed to absorb minute particles in the air. The airline says the technique is 99.9% effective in eliminating bacteria and viruses.

“Airplanes are constantly pulling air from the outside,” Wilkerson said. “It actually recirculates the air in the cabin every two to three minutes.”

Snack bags will also be distributed to passengers when they board, to limit contact.

Other safety measures include touchless kiosks, safe-distancing floor stickers, badges showing employees have passed a temperature check, and a mandatory mask policy at contact points, including onboard.

"If you’re on the plane, and you want everybody to wear their mask, so you have that level of conformability with yourself,” said Samuel Wilson, arriving on a flight from Phoenix.

United says if one of its planes reaches 70% capacity or more, the airline notifies passengers ahead of time. They are given the option to change their booking for free.

The airline says if a passenger onboard refuses to wear a mask or takes it off during the flight, an attendant will politely remind that person about the protocol.

If they still refuse, they will not be allowed to fly with United again.

Wilkerson said United wants to make passengers feel they’re safe.

"We’re looking out for the air you’re going to breathe, the customers you’re going to be around, and the employees you’re going to come into contact with,” he said. "There’s very few places in our daily lives that we walk into that are cleaned that well, and that the air is being circulated and filtered that well."