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I went to Heathrow to see Virgin and Delta’s covid safety measures in action

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I recently spent a few hours in Terminal 2 at Heathrow as the guest of Virgin Atlantic and Delta Air Lines.

The aim was to show a small group of media representatives how the airlines are looking after the health of their passengers during the pandemic. The day was timed to allow us to board both a Virgin Atlantic and Delta Air Lines aircraft whilst they were being cleaned, as well as looking at the onboard service currently offered.

Heading into Terminal 2

Our day started in the Plaza Premium Arrivals lounge in Terminal 2. This is NOT yet open to the public but was re-opened especially for us. This is a surprisingly small space but, like all Plaza Premium lounges, very well decorated.

Plaza Premium arrivals lounge Heathrow Terminal 2

Whilst we weren’t flying anywhere, we had to clear security as any passenger would. Queues were, unsurprisingly, non existent. The airport has attempted to put a one-way system in place around the terminal, and there were plenty of hand santitiser stations.

Stepping out onto the upper level of Terminal 2, you are greeted with this spooky sight of socially distanced seating below you:

Heathrow Terminal 2 seating

If you are flying with Virgin or Delta in a premium cabin, or have status, you can avoid this by heading to the Plaza Premium departure lounge. Rhys reviewed the Plaza Premium Heathrow Terminal 2 lounge here, shortly after it reopened.

Virgin Atlantic has produced a short video about the current ‘airport experience’ which you can find on YouTube here.

First stop – Delta Air Lines

We headed down to the gate where Delta’s 12.50 flight to Atlanta would be boarding.

(As an aside, it was good to see free magazines back in the terminal, if not in the lounges. Tom Otley, editor of Business Traveller, was especially pleased to see their first post-lockdown issue there! It is worth stocking up here as in-flight magazines have been removed.)

Free airport magazines

We met a Delta cleaning ‘ninja’ (my word, not his) who is assigned to ensure that the aircraft has been prepared to the necessary standards. His bag:

Delta inflight cleaning

…… contains virtually everything needed to sanitise any spots he thinks may have been missed by the main crew.

We were a little early and, knowing how to keep a group of aviation writers happy, Delta allowed us to go down onto the tarmac and have a look around.

Delta aircraft

There were tables at the gate with (disposable) pens to complete the ‘Traveler Health Declaration’ form required for entry into the US.

The form basically says: ‘Do you have coronavirus? Yes/No’. It is probably as effective as the ‘Were you a Nazi war criminal? Yes/No’ question which used to appear on US immigration forms. One of the very few questions is ‘Have you been to Hubei Province, China in the past 14 days?’ which is not hugely relevant now.

Onto the aircraft

Delta is, like British Airways, boarding economy passengers by row to avoid anyone having to pass passengers already seated. Delta One passengers can board at their leisure as the airbridge connects to the centre doors, with business class turning left. Passport control and boarding pass scanning is now contactless.

HEPA filters

On the gangway we stopped to see a HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filter in the flesh and to learn how it works. The filters remove all dust, allergens and bacteria from the cabin with air being replaced every 2-3 minutes. The air flow is top to bottom, effectively pushing down towards the floor level extractors anything you breath out:

How do HEPA filters work

You probably know that most long-haul aircraft are missing a window somewhere – it’s the row you want to avoid sitting in. This is where the air filtration vent sits, pumping air in and out.

Delta has produced a video which shows this in action better than I can explain. I recommend you take a look at this YouTube video on the Delta page if you want to learn more.

Cabin cleaning

Whilst it is something I see more and more these days via press events, there is always something a little spooky about being on an empty aircraft:

Empty Delta economy cabin

Whilst you can’t see it from the picture, cushions had been placed on many seats to encourage passengers to remain in their allocated spot. Part of the aircraft had also been blocked off so that any passengers or crew who displayed covid symptoms could be isolated.

Each active seat contained Delta’s Health Pack. This includes three face masks (the recommended life of each mask is three hours) along with wipes and hand sanitiser.

We had come on board to see electrostatic cleaning in action. This system is used by both Virgin Atlantic and Delta. We met the Delta operative again later in the day as he was boarding the Virgin Atlantic aircraft we had just visited.

Electrostatic cleaning means you get to wear this rather nifty Ghostbusters style uniform:

Electrosatic aircraft cleaning outfit

Here is a video I took of the cleaning process in action:

Since chemistry – or is this physics? – was never my strong point at school, I turned to the internet to find out what is going on here. To quote:

What Is Electrostatic Disinfection?

Electrostatic spray surface cleaning is the process of spraying an electrostatically charged mist onto surfaces and objects. Electrostatic spray uses a specialized solution that is combined with air and atomized by an electrode inside the sprayer. Subsequently, the spray contains positively charged particles that are able to aggressively adhere to surfaces and objects. Because the particles in the spray are positively charged, they cling to and coat any surface they’re aimed at.

For awkwardly shaped objects or hard to reach places, cleaning staff only have to point and spray; the nature of the mist allows it to coat surfaces evenly, and envelope objects – even if the mist is only sprayed from one side. After the spray is applied, the sanitizing agent works to disinfect the covered surfaces. For this reason, electrostatic spray is an excellent solution for germ and contaminant ridden areas.

How Does Electrostatic Disinfection Work?

Electrostatic spray is electrically charged, allowing the appropriate sanitizers, mold preventatives and disinfectants to wrap around and evenly coat all types of surfaces for a more complete clean. As the chemical exits the electrostatic sprayer, it’s given a positive electrical charge. The droplets then become attracted to all negative surfaces, covering the visible area, underside and backside, with the sanitizing agent. Surfaces that are already covered will repel the spray, making the method extremely efficient.

Whilst the tray tables were down during spraying, the article above makes clear that the mist will naturally find its way into nooks and crannies regardless.

If you are interested in how Virgin Atlantic approaches cabin cleaning, there is an interesting video on their YouTube site here.

In-flight service

Whilst British Airways is only serving cold food in economy and business class at the moment, served in a cardboard box, both Delta and Virgin Atlantic have returned to something closer to normal.

Here is a Delta business class meal which was laid out for us, designed to be served on one tray in one ‘pass’ of the cabin. There were chicken, pasta and beef options for the main course that day, with wine available.

Delta One business class meal

Half an hour later we were at the other end of the terminal on a Virgin Atlantic aircraft. Here is the hot Virgin Atlantic economy and premium economy meal – both cabins receive the same at the moment – we were shown:

Virgin Atlantic economy meal coronavirus

Here is a typical Virgin Atlantic Upper Class meal. I actually ate this as my lunch! It would obviously look better if it had been plated up, but this would require additional handling by the crew.

There are three main course options available on each flight. I was given a cod main:

Virgin Atlantic upper class meal coronavirus

Alcoholic drinks are available on Virgin Atlantic in all cabins, and indeed I was given a glass of champagne on entering the aircraft.

Conclusion

As we reported at the weekend, a recent US Government study – using real aircraft, not simulations – shows that the possibility of transmitting a virus on an aircraft is very low.

Since my visit to Heathrow, Virgin Atlantic has also doubled-down with pre-flight testing of all pilots and crew.

It is clear that both Virgin Atlantic and Delta are doing as much as possible to ensure the safety of passengers. Unfortunately for them, mass resumption of long-haul flying will also need travellers to be happy with the safety of their full journey from home to hotel – as well, of course, as the easing of entry and quarantine restrictions by Government.

Thank you to Virgin Atlantic and Delta Air Lines for arranging the day.

Comments (50)

  • Kevin says:

    Not sure if it’s just me, but the formatting of the email version was wonky today. Very small font and very large pictures.

  • Cheryl says:

    Same here email format had a problem

  • SydneySwan says:

    Very informative article.

  • Catalan says:

    My goodness. How awful does that Upper Class meal look!

    • The Savage Squirrel says:

      Indeed; what a misstep and I’m sure the Virgin PR bod is wincing at that photo this morning. I’m not sure why plating up would even be an issue – is it galley space? – every restaurant I’ve been to deems it safe to bring out meals on a plate :D. (staff can of course wear blue nitrile gloves to do this if food handling hygiene is an increased concern).

    • Andrew says:

      It looks shocking.

      Compare that with a £4 M&S ready meal:-

      https://www.ocado.com/productImages/515/515883011_0_1280x1280.jpg

      And you know that it will still look reasonably well presented after it’s cooked.

  • Tony says:

    Nice read that. Good to see how the airlines are trying to mitigate. Sadly right now I think the reasons for most travellers not flying are probably much broader than the sanitisation of planes.

  • ChrisW says:

    Aircraft cleanliness isn’t the reason so many people aren’t booking any Virgin or Delta flights this year!

    It’s interesting that Economy and Premium get the exact same meals. I imagine there is almost zero demand for Premium right now given the only difference is the seat and if you’re likely to have at least an empty seat next to you (if not a whole row) it’s preferable to have an economy row where you can put the arm rests up and make a poor man’s business class bed versus premium where the arm rest is immovable.

  • Mike says:

    Interesting but you won’t see me in a hotel or on a plane for a very long time. For work company travel policy is no UK travel / hotels until Easter 21 and no international travel until summer 21 and I am following the same for social travel.

    • AJA says:

      I think this is sensible. I too am not booking any personal travel for the foreseeable future.I don’t travel for work anyway. Much as I realise the combined effect on the airlines and wider travel industry of lots of us doing the same my family’s health is a higher priority than a couple of weeks away somewhere. Interesting to see what they are doing though.

    • ChrisW says:

      The reality is international business travel will be highly dependent on the rollout of a globally accepted vaccine. ‘Summer 21’ is just a finger in the air guess of when that might be.

      • Mike says:

        Chris W – To be fair it was no international travel definitely until summer 21 / possibly Christmas 21

    • Rob says:

      Good job you don’t work for us then Mike, or you’d be missing the all expenses paid jolly in Barbados we’ve just been invited on by Virgin 🙂

      • ChrisW says:

        If I was confident I could fly to Barbados without having to quarantine at either end I would go tomorrow. Test in advance is fine.

      • Lady London says:

        So is Rhys getting that one then?

        Ironic since you just cancelled Barbados for half term, Rob!

      • Optimus Prime says:

        Looks like TLFL is quarantining in Barbados at this moment.

        • Rob says:

          I was meant to be on the Virgin flight this morning – in fact I have a reminder in my Outlook inbox! Had we been able to go for 10-14 days it may have been doable for us even with the kids.

  • Peter K says:

    “As we reported at the weekend, a recent US Government study – using real aircraft, not simulations – shows that the possibility of transmitting a virus on an aircraft is very low.”

    The comments to that article showed the major flaws in the research and are well worth a read. And despite using a real aircraft it was still a simulation.

    • TGLoyalty says:

      All things considered the risk might not be tiny like it was making out but it’s still low