Tom Starr, Southwest Airlines’ general manager at Denver International Airport, donned a surgical mask and safety vest Tuesday morning. Just after 10 a.m. he called for the attention of the corporate travel managers gathered around him. He was about to lead them on a tour from the check-in counter to a Southwest gate on the airport’s Concourse C with a focus on COVID-19 safety and cleaning efforts.
“My goal is to walk you through what travelers will experience,” Starr said, “and help us all build some confidence in travel.”
National air traffic was down about 68% in late September compared to the same time in 2019, according to DIA officials. During the week of Sept. 20-26, 214,459 people passed through the airport’s security lines, 53% fewer than the same week in 2019, officials say.
But Denver’s airport is seeing more people than most.
“We have been about 10% above the national leverage in terms of recovery that last few months,” DIA CEO Kim Day said. “Many days, we have been the busiest airport in the U.S.”
It’s a situation that puts would-be travelers concerned about possible exposure to the coronavirus in a tough spot. 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 amount of crowding at check-in counters, security lines or aboard DIA’s train connecting the terminal with the concourses could scare people off.
With the critical holiday travel season approaching, airlines like Southwest and airport officials are going out of their way to highlight safety procedures and new programs designed to combat the spread of coronavirus and give travelers enough peace of mind to return to the skies.
On Tuesday’s tour, Starr highlighted Southwest’s use of electrostatic sprayers to apply disinfectant to the check-in counter and kiosks nightly. He showed off one of the digital thermometers Southwest uses to check every employee’s temperature daily.
Dave Harvey, the airline’s vice president of business travel, highlighted Southwest’s efforts to support corporate clients, including being flexible when it comes to allowing those clients to managing money already invested in unused tickets.
Once through security and off the train — the airport’s domains — the tour came a Southwest gate. There, Starr pointed to a kiosk provided by DIA loaded with sanitizing wipes. Much like shoppers at a grocery store, passengers can take one as they board the plane and wipe down surfaces and touchpoints, many of which are already wiped down between flights. Southwest is also employing a system that allows only 10 passengers to board a plane at a time, cutting down on lines and crowding. The airline already promises empty middle seats on all its flights through at least Nov. 30.
Lynelle Lahey, a travel and expense specialist with the SCL Health System was on Tuesday’s tour. She was impressed by how far apart benches were at the Southwest gate, ensuring people aren’t bunched together while they wait to board. She also was encouraged by the 10-passenger-at-a-time boarding protocol.
“The other airlines say they do that and they don’t,” said Lahey who has flown a handful of times in recent months.
The thing that stuck with Lahey the most from the tour wasn’t something Southwest is doing, but a new program DIA introduced last month called VeriFLY.
As explained as Tuesday by DIA chief operating officer Chris McLaughlin, VeriFLY is a free smartphone-powered reservation system. It allows crowd-weary and high-risk passengers to book 15-minute blocks to go through a dedicated security line and board a reserved train car to the concourses, making social distancing easier at those bottlenecks in the DIA experience. The train cars are limited to 12 passengers.
“That’s going to be a crucial thing for people who don’t want to travel because of these issues,” Lahey said.
The airport is still tweaking the program, but Day celebrated VerfiFLY last week.
“We’re really thrilled about it. It’s something that no other airport is offering,” she said. “Hopefully, it will get people traveling who otherwise would not.”
VeriFLY is not the only piece of technology DIA is eying to make airport visits easier as the holidays approach. Later this fall, the airport plans to start working with Atyourgate, Day said. The app that works like a localized DoorDash or UberEats, allowing flyers to order food and other retail items from concession stands in the airport and have it brought to them at their gate, limiting interactions with other people and adding convenience.
DIA’s main terminal still is in disarray from its beleaguered and now cash-short renovation project. Even with far fewer people likely to pass through the great hall this year compared to last holiday season, Day said the airport is looking at bringing back purple-shirt wearing “ambassadors” to give travelers directions and help them navigate.
“We’re going to test it over Thanksgiving,” Day said. ” What we don’t want to do is create additional density that makes people feel unsafe.”
Tuesday’s Southwest tour and DIA’s app come against a backdrop of an airline industry in free fall.
Southwest came into the coronavirus crisis with stronger reserves than competitors and tapped into private loans to avoid layoffs this year. Denver-based Frontier Airlines stuck deals with its pilots’ and flight attendants’ unions and no longer expects to furlough any workers after announcing plans to do so this summer, a spokeswoman said. But major carriers United Airlines and American Airlines both furloughed thousands of workers last week. As of early September, more than 900 of United’s cuts were expected to come in Denver.
The cuts come as Congress struggles to reach a bipartisan deal on another stimulus package to keep airline workers on the job.
Travelers likely won’t feel the impact of those layoffs, Michael Boyd, president of Evergreen-based aviation consulting firm Boyd Group International, said. The jobs being cut were those in excess of demand. But if the air travel numbers stay as low as they have been this year through the holidays and beyond, Boyd expects the airline industry to go through a major downward restructure.
Boyd hopes would-be passengers will listen to Frontier CEO Barry Biffle, who in August claimed flying on a plane was “one of the safest things you can do outside your home.”
With airlines now eliminating change fees and with most planes half-full at best, air travel is less of a hassle now that it has been in years, Boyd said. Add in airport cleaning protocols and programs like DIA’s VeriFLY, and Boyd is willing to argue airports are less of an infection risk 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 to go somewhere and it involves an airplane, go. Just go.”
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