HOUSTON — Earlier this month, a viral photo snapped by a doctor on a crowded United Airlines flight caused backlash against the airline. Now United has updated its social distancing policies and launched a new cleanliness initiative called United Clean Plus.
The airline gave KHOU 11 exclusive behind-the-scenes access to see the changes up close at Bush Intercontinental Airport, one of the airline's largest hubs.
"That's the only way we'll get them to fly, is if they feel comfortable," said Rodney Cox, vice president of Hub in Houston.
Right now the public still largely uneasy about flying again. On a typical day, United moves 55,000 people through Bush Airport. COVID-19 has tanked passenger traffic down to 4,500.
"It's a new way of life until we get a vaccine that can make sure COVID-19 doesn't come back," Cox said.
United's new partnership with Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic will implement new cleanliness and social distancing protocols across the airline's operations.
"We want to make sure the customer's journey from check-in to landing is sanitary, clean and safe," Cox said.
Among the new measures, all United employees must wear masks and receive temperature checks before starting work. At Bush Airport, you will find updated signage, new sneeze guards and a brand-new way to check in starting Friday.
"It's touchless check in," Cox said. "As a customer, I don't have to touch the screen at all."
At the gate, boarding will be different.
"Boarding may take a little longer, because we're very aware of social distancing," said Crystal Heckman, base director of Inflight Services.
Boarding will by row now from the back of the plane forward to minimize contact. And there will be constant cleaning of the gate waiting area.
"The agents will make continuous announcements regarding requirement of face masks," Heckman said.
If you don't have a face mask, United will provide you one free of charge, along with your own sanitizer wipe when boarding. Starting June 1, cleaning crews will conduct electrostatic spraying to disinfect every aircraft before every single flight.
"Electrostatic spraying that we're using is the same spraying hospitals use to disinfect their rooms," Heckman said.
There are special HEPA filters onboard every plane, too.
"This filter captures 99.97 percent of the particulates that are floating in the air," said Joe Condoleo, aircraft shift manager at IAH.
It circulates the air every 2 to 3 minutes. That's hospital-grade air filtration that United says keeps cabin air quality as clean as possible.
"Once our customers are on board they will absolutely see a change to our service," Heckman said.
You can expect only sealed beverage from now on. There's no more ice on the aircraft, and on flights longer than 2 hours and 20 minutes, you'll receive an all-in-one sealed snack kit with bottled water.
When you finally take your seat, United says it will socially distance passengers in the cabin as much as possible, but cannot guarantee the middle seat will always be empty.
But in response to the viral photo, the airline says it will give customers a heads up and a choice.
United has started notifying passengers 24 hours in advance if their flight is 70 percent full or more. The airline then plans to give travelers the option to re-book on a different flight to enhance social distancing and make sure every passenger is comfortable. This specific policy will be in place through June 30.