Why Delta is leaving middle seats empty during the pandemic
By Niraj Chokshi
The number of people flying today is down about 75% from a year ago. And in the fight to attract those few passengers who remain, airlines have promoted their health and safety policies.
Delta Air Lines has tried to stake a claim as one of the most cautious companies in the industry by promising to leave middle seats empty even as American Airlines and United Airlines are selling as many seats as they can. Delta has also said that it cleans planes between flights, tests all employees for the coronavirus and aggressively enforces a mask requirement. On Monday, it announced a partnership with Lysol’s parent company aimed at improving Delta’s cleaning practices.
The man responsible for all those initiatives is Bill Lentsch, a 30-year veteran of the airline who is its chief customer experience officer. In an interview, he explained Delta’s approach. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: What does Delta hope to get out of working with Lysol?
A: We hope to tap the 130 years of expertise that Lysol has — to transpose it into the cabin, into the lavatories on board the aircraft, into our facilities. Through our survey data, we hear that our cabins are very clean, but one thing our customers say is, “The lavatories are very clean when we get on board, but how can you keep them clean throughout the flight?” And this is the first area that we are going to target with Lysol, coming up with a product that will help us maintain cleanliness during flight on board the airplane. It doesn’t sound terribly glamorous, but it’s incredibly important to our people.
Q: Delta has already teamed up with the Mayo Clinic. How has that partnership informed what you do?
A: The Mayo Clinic partnership is phenomenal. They’ve been looking at our practices and policies with a very critical eye. They are also helping us develop our program to test all of our employees, not only the active virus but for the antibodies. Once we have all of our employees baseline tested, who do we then retest, at what frequency, and what are all the factors to determine that? The Mayo Clinic has a very sophisticated algorithm that they’re building to help with that. They’re providing general education to our employees and sitting on an advisory panel for us, too, so that we have an opportunity to run new policies, procedures and technologies by them.
Q: Let’s take a step back. Few people are traveling these days. Who are they?
A: Well, those who are providing essential services have continued to fly throughout the pandemic — doctors, nurses, critical workers who support the economy, government and other key organizations. Also, many must fly personally, whether it’s for a funeral, some small family event, or someone is sick. But business travel is still very depressed.
Q: What do customers say they need before they’re willing to fly again?
A: They want to be assured that airlines have very comprehensive social distancing and aircraft cleaning policies. But I think the real key to why they aren’t traveling is because restaurants, hotels, car rental facilities, other businesses, either have significant restrictions or aren’t even opened up. They’re not flying just to fly, they’ve got something that they want to do.
Q: Delta was early to block middle seats and is going to continue through September. But that policy doesn’t guarantee 6 feet of distance. Why keep it up?
A: Our position all along has been we are going to take a multilayered approach. That means more frequent replacement of the HEPA filters that are part of our air circulation system, enforcing wearing of masks, making sure that we minimize the touch points with our customers and having space between you and the person closest to you. So we are looking to ensure that we are driving the probability of any kind of transmission very, very close to zero. All of the medical guidance we’ve received says that more space is more protective. So, yes, it’s not 6 feet, but it’s better than having someone shoulder-to-shoulder with you.
Q: How have passenger needs changed during the pandemic?
A: Well, the order of priorities is different. Price and schedule flexibility used to be one of the most important factors. While those are still part of the mix, customers have placed the highest priority on two things: social distancing, whether that’s in the airport, lobbies, gate areas, jet bridges or on board the airplane, and cleanliness.
Q: You’ve continued to fly weekly during the pandemic. How has that informed your work?
A: It’s interesting because while I have my eyes on the operation, we have flight attendants and pilots and gate agents and others who are on board that aircraft every minute of every day. They hear from our customers in ways that we may not through a survey. For example, the decision that we made months ago to start boarding the airplane from back to front rather than by zones. That came from a flight attendant who heard from a customer in first class, who said, “Maybe you should put us on last because everyone who is sitting behind me is walking right by me.”
Q: Delta and other airlines have already implemented a lot of new health and safety policies. What more is there to do?
A: This is why we partnered with Lysol and the Mayo Clinic. We want to hear from them. We’re looking for a critical eye to help us fill any gaps and push the boundaries. It is my opinion that in three to six months, there are going to be some products on our airplanes that I’m not even contemplating right now. And, by the way, we’re never going to be done with this. We’ve built an organization at Delta, a global cleanliness division with a vice president of the company who leads it, and the purpose is solely to continue to push the boundaries of cleanliness and sanitization and protection for our customers and our employees.
Q: Delta has brought back alcohol, restored automatic upgrades for elite members and reopened some lounges. Do customers still care about these kinds of perks?
A: Not all of them do, but some of them do. And this is where we really have to evaluate the feedback. But one thing is very clear for us, and we make this very clear to our customers: We will not compromise their safety. We’ll listen to their feedback and take action, provided we can find a way to do it safely. In some cases, we’ve had to say no for the time being. In other cases, like the limited beer and wine offering we started this month in first class and comfort plus, we found a way to serve that without adding any more touch points between our flight attendants and our customers.