Aug 21, 2020 - Health

Delta Air Lines adds widespread virus testing to reassure travelers

Illustration of a hand in medical gloves holding a small airplane with a Delta logo

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A widely available coronavirus vaccine would go a long way toward rebuilding public confidence in air travel, but until it arrives, Delta Air Lines believes widespread, proactive COVID-19 testing for employees will help win passengers' trust.

What's happening: In partnership with the Mayo Clinic and Quest Diagnostics, Delta plans to test every one of its 75,000 employees for both active COVID-19 and antibodies by the end of the month.

  • It will then use those results as a baseline to help develop a re-testing strategy based on tailored risk assessments.
  • More than 60% of Delta employees have been tested so far this month.
  • Delta and CVS Health said this week they would accelerate testing of remaining flight crews with a 15-minute test administered in crew lounges at Delta hub airports.

Why it matters: Testing is another precaution by Delta — in addition to checking symptoms, requiring masks, cleaning planes frequently and limiting flight capacity to 60% — to try to woo back passengers during the pandemic.

  • Other airlines are doing many of the same things, but it's believed Delta is the only one attempting to test every employee.
  • Testing is "really one of our best tools right now in keeping workforces safe," William Morice of the Mayo Clinic tells Axios.

How it works: Employees are voluntarily tested for the virus using a nasal swab, and for antibodies using a blood test.

  • Tests are conducted in cities with large employee populations — including Atlanta, Minneapolis and New York — with a self-collected at-home testing option as well.
  • By testing everyone, Delta and Mayo hope to identify broader trends that might alert them to higher-risk workplaces or routes, for example.
  • Then they can respond with the appropriate measures to address those particular risks.

Context: Air travel collapsed 90% in late March and early April when stay-at-home orders were implemented to stop the spread of the virus, per Airlines for America, a trade group.

  • As of mid-August, domestic passenger volumes are still down 70% from a year ago; international travel is down 88%.
  • The average domestic flight is 47% full, compared with 88% a year earlier.

What they're saying: "Any survey you look at, people are still concerned whether it's safe to travel," Delta CEO Ed Bastian told "Axios on HBO" in June. "And it's our job to ensure the traveling public that indeed it is safe."

  • After 9/11, it was fairly easy to increase airline security, but "when you have a virus, that's really an invisible enemy, it's much more difficult," Bastian said.
  • “This is a journey with no finish line — and we know that more than three-quarters of customers, when asked, share that regular employee testing will help boost their confidence in travel," Bill Lentsch, chief customer experience officer at Delta, said in a statement.

The bottom line: While most consumers are still wary of travel, those who have traveled recently are far more confident to fly again, according to a survey by PwC.

Go deeper: Plane cabins could change dramatically because of the pandemic. Here’s how. (Washington Post)

Go deeper