This story is part of our New Standard series, examining where travel is headed. Read more about how we define the New Standard here.This has been a year of firsts for everyone, including the airline industry. For the first time ever it held its middle seats open, required passengers to wear masks on board, and gave fliers two years to rebook canceled flights. And the first carrier to enact most of these measures was Delta—but maybe more importantly, it was also the first to tell customers what it was doing. The company’s relative success during this time owes a lot to its open communication, right down to its sneak peeks of the new cleaning technology it was developing.
Rival carriers followed Delta’s lead, but not all have been as transparent or consistent about implementing changes. Some implied that middle seats would be blocked, then filled planes to capacity anyway, to the alarm of nervous passengers. (Delta, for the record, has promised to continue blocking seats and limiting flier numbers at least into the fall.)
As in so many other corners of the travel industry, enhanced cleaning procedures were a top order of business. Delta was one of the first companies in the world to use an electrostatic sprayer with hospital-grade disinfectant to sanitize all surfaces. Soon it had implemented these protocols on every plane before every takeoff. In addition to spraying, the company has a team of cleaners who wipe every crevice of the cabin.
“We want to be the industry leader in clean standards,” says Ginny Elliott, Delta’s vice president of airport operations at LaGuardia Airport. Another way the company has sought to do this is by launching an entirely new division focused on hygiene standards, its Global Cleanliness Division, overseen by a new executive role called the vice president of global cleanliness. It is responsible for overseeing everything from check-in to Sky Club lounges to baggage claim. (American Airlines has since followed suit with its Travel Health Advisory Panel.) When the pandemic is under control, these rigorous procedures will remain, a promise that only Delta, so far, has made.
Fliers seem to have taken notice. According to Elliott, overall customer satisfaction scores have seen a 30-point increase compared to 2019. Obviously, this has to do with how Delta has responded, but it also has to do with how the airline has talked about its response—which goes to show how much travelers need to hear from companies right now to feel confident about booking a trip.
This article appeared in the October 2020 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.