Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle wants Americans to fly during the pandemic.
It’s critical for saving airline industry jobs and supporting the broader economy that relies on travel, the Denver-based CEO said.
“I think it’s just really important that people start to understand what’s unsafe and flying on an airplane, that’s not unsafe,” Biffle said in an interview with The Denver Post. “It’s actually one of the safest things you can outside your home. I think as soon as that starts getting out, we’ll start getting some traffic back.”
Biffle highlighted Frontier’s COVID-19 safety protocols. Planes are regularly fogged with disinfectant and masks are mandatory onboard. Frontier mandates temperature checks for all passengers, the only U.S. airline that has taken that step, Biffle said. All of the airline’s jets are outfitted with HEPA filters to pull contaminants out of the air.
On May 3, the airline stopped all in-flight food and beverage service so passengers won’t have an excuse to take their masks off, according to spokeswoman Jennifer De La Cruz. Bottles of water are available for purchase.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on travel during the COVID-19 pandemic supports that flights themselves are relatively safe.
“Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes,” the CDC’s website reads. “However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and sitting within 6 feet of others, sometimes for hours, may increase your risk of getting COVID-19.”
The CDC guidance also notes spending time in security lines and moving through potentially crowded airport terminals means exposure to more people and high-touch surfaces.
“I think one of the big concerns around flying that could be addressed is all the other steps around flying,” said Elizabeth Carlton, an associate professor with the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz. “How do you get to the airport? Is it in an Uber or Lyft? Once you’re in the airport is there congestion and crowds?”
Carlton mentioned the train at Denver International Airport, which ferries passengers between the terminal and concourses, as a confined, high-traffic space where germs might spread.
The airline is tracking infection rates among its employees. As of Friday, that figure was 1.41%, according to De La Cruz. The national infection rate is as of Thursday, was 1.47%, according to the CDC.
Biffle said airline industry traffic is down about 75% today, something that makes little sense to him when business at restaurants and bars, which he says are much higher-risk places to be than airplanes, is coming back at a higher rate. He insists he is not advocating bad behavior during the pandemic, just more air travel.
“Don’t take risker steps,” Biffle said. “If you don’t go to crowded bars when you are near your home, don’t do it when you’re on vacation.”
The CEO’s calls for the public to return to the skies comes on the heels of Frontier informing 925 flight attendants and 559 pilots across the country that they will be furloughed on Oct. 1. That includes 180 flight attendants and 218 pilots based in Denver. Oct. 1 is a pivotal date for the industry with United Airlines also planning a deep round of job cuts that day. Federal payroll support funding for airlines runs out Sept. 30.
Biffle said Frontier is working with other airlines to lobby Congress for more support, but even getting back to 50% of normal air travel would go a long way to head off furloughs. Even short-term furloughs could be damaging to the airline industry because it takes time for employees to be retrained and certified for specialty jobs.
“We can’t just snap our fingers” and be back to normal, Biffle said.
A recent Franklin Templeton-Gallup study found that 52% of Americans are not comfortable with air travel. The results were based on more than 10,000 web-based surveys conducted in early July.
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