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United Comes Clean in Coronavirus Update

United for Business online discussion takes a long, sober look at what’s happening and what’s ahead

July 23, 2020

In the airline’s Coronavirus Update, information on the latest news for United Airlines’ business passengers included the revised mask requirement, a review of its CleanPlus program, and its progress in adjusting demand to scheduling. Jane Lee, United for Business Marketing, moderated the hour-long online discussion which included a question and answer period.

Mike Erbeck, vice-president for United’s Newark Hub, emphasized “we want to get you back flying again.” Cleanliness is a priority, and everything that can be made “touchless” has been implemented (you can now print your baggage tags via the United app, for example). Electrostatic cleaning of the aircraft – part of the comprehensive CleanPlus initiative – allows disinfectants to penetrate into areas that formerly weren’t reached.

All passengers will complete a “Ready-to-Fly” checklist before boarding, he says, affirming that they don’t have symptoms for COVID-19 and agree to follow United’s policies regarding facemasks – which are now mandated, not just recommended. On board, all food and beverages are served in sealed containers.

Dr. James Merlino, chief clinical transformation officer at Cleveland Clinic, said, “There is no financial relationship” between United and the clinic, an American academic medical center based in Cleveland, Ohio. “It’s the right thing to do.” He pointed out that the collaboration has been productive: “We don’t have one verified case of coronavirus transmission on an airplane.”

The focus of the partnership is providing “best practices for safety, assuming that the things we do can possibly kill people. Our job is to create multiple barriers, because no one tactic will keep people safe.” Social distancing, masks and use of hand sanitizer are examples of overlapping layers when added to the CleanPlus program in place.

Patrick Quayle, vice president for the International Network and Alliances reported that United had 323 daily departures before COVID-19. “By April, we were down to 11.” Since then, routes have been reassessed and reconfigured: “We’re up to 90 departures in August.”

He reports that United is working with partner airlines on “hub-to-hub” routing to increase passenger reach. “We’re using interline, codeshare and joint venture to recreate a seamless journey for passengers to more destinations.”

Jake Cefolia, senior vice-president for Worldwide Sales, pointed out the airline’s enhanced air circulation protocol. Using auxiliary power on the ground during boarding and deplaning, HEPA filters remove almost all (“99.97 percent”) microbes from the air on the plane.

In light of the fact that it’s almost impossible to social distance onboard, Cefolia says that if United determines that the passenger load is more than 70 percent, the company will either “up gauge” the plane or notify passengers, allowing them to change flight plans with no penalty.

His hardest job during the pandemic relates to staffing changing. “Of course, if demand is downsized, we have to downsize: 30 percent of our sales staff is furloughed. Unfortunately, this also causes relationship disruptions between staff and customers.”

Responding to a question about mask enforcement, Erbeck said the goal was not to be abrasive. “We’re going to use ‘gentle nudges.’ First, we’ll provide masks to those who arrive without, then we’ll remind them to wear them, and only if they refuse will we tell them they can’t fly on United. This is a safety issue for both our passengers and our employees.”