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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

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.


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Comments (50)

  • The Lord says:

    Would be keen to give it a try. Issue isn’t the cleanliness of the planes or airport but that cannot currently fly anywhere that Delta fly to

  • JRC says:

    Looked like most of the spray was going in the aisle rather than on the seats. Surprised they haven’t created something similar to a crop sprayer that they could wheel down the aisle. Would give consistent and even spraying every single time (and probably quicker) than relying on a human to ensure every seat got sprayed properly.

  • Steve says:

    Two points. 1) It’s amusing how every other seat is blocked out in the terminal, but it’s fine to then sit next to somebody on a plane. 2) I think it should be easing of entry and quarantine restrictions by Governments, not singular. It’s not just the position on arrival upon returning to the UK that is the issue, it’s the fact that there are many countries where you cannot actually enter, even if you so chose.

    • Paul says:

      Agreed, an utterly futile gesture which does not improve safety or mitigate risk. The cynic in me says it helps reduce the cleaning bill not that LHR was ever really clean.

      In August the carnage of T5 check in was in marked contrast to the media sterile environment that is being peddled here. There were no staff in August, no usable hand sanitiser stations and massive queues.

      Gatwick was not much better.

      I am happy to fly, would still do so now, but I need to see genuine risk mitigation measures not this ludicrous window dressing and costs cutting. I want testing of all staff and departing/arriving passengers and for this to be subsidised by the airport authority and airlines. I pay enough to use the airport whilst BAs and other airlines outrageous charges can be used to improve consumer confidence until a vaccine is available.

      Restaurants can provide plated meals cutlery and glasses. This should be entirely possible on board an aircraft, indeed it is on Qatar and Air France.

    • jc says:

      For (1), could you possibly share the reasoning you have used to conclude that being sat next to two strangers through the course of your day carries no more risk than only being sat next to one…?

      • paul says:

        That was not my point.
        You close off seats making it harder for people to sit down together. That is fine but you do so in an environment that is designed to then put them on to a mode of transport that crams them in like sardines and where around you there will be not 1, but 2 on either side plus 3 behind and 3 in front. Now that is not safe, but if I am prepared to take that risk then it is illogical to close off adjacent seating in a far bigger, better ventilated and less crowded environment.
        It is also then futile to announce that I should remain 2m apart when disembarking having been sat for 2-4 hours rubbing shoulders with the person next to you.

    • TGLoyalty says:

      I find all of these measures quite annoying frankly because if I go anywhere with my household of 5 we can actually sit altogether but the airport has decided we cant by putting up these stupid signs.

      I noticed in Scotland they used “1 household only” signs on most benches, banks of seats etc. Far more sensible signage.

  • BS says:

    That is a truly grim Virgin meal. Why can’t they do it properly like Delta?
    Even if I were to travel I would actively avoid Virgin because of this offering.

    • Rob says:

      BA will give you a cardboard box with a sandwich or something else cold in it …

      I can’t remember if I’d starting eating it when I took the picture of not. Obviously it came with a cover on it.

    • Kieran says:

      If you choose your airline based on an economy meal picture, I think maybe you need to rethink. Especially when the competition aren’t serving a hot meal or alcohol at the moment.

    • Lady London says:

      It looked very American. I am not a fan of American Y plane food which this looked like.

      The trouble with Qatar J is that it ruins you for so much else.

  • marcw says:

    Hilarious to focus so much on cleaning. Airlines need to realise what is causing the low demand: it’s not the cleaning, it’s not the “COVID_19 safe” environment they had put emphasis on.

  • Brian says:

    ” It is probably as effective as the ‘Were you a Nazi war criminal? Yes/No’ question which used to appear on US immigration forms. ”

    Rob I think the point of the form is not to filter out Nazi war criminals, or perpetrators moral turpitude. Lying on the form or not completing it, is a strict liability offence. This facilitates removal by denying 5th amendment rights should they pass thru immigration. It’s a legal tool.

    • ChrisC says:

      Indeed and they just replaced it with an “are you a terrorist?” instead.

  • David says:

    I currently have a platinum which I’m going to cancel because the travel-related benefits were important to me before but won’t be in the future.

    Before I cancel, can I refer my wife for this gold and get even more of a bonus?

    Also, how big a factor does individual income play in acceptance for a card?If total household income is decent and no problems on credit history, would they likely still get a card despite not earning much themselves?

    • Rob says:

      Yes, you can refer her.

      Amex is bigger on household than personal income, and more bothered about gap between income and expenditure than total income.

    • Alex M says:

      add your wife as a sup on your platinum for potential 5000 bonus, if you haven’t done that yet. and then refer her to gold…

    • TGLoyalty says:

      I would refer your wife for gold form your platinum. However you don’t have to cancel after that you could downgrade to the gold charge (I was given first year free)

  • RussellH says:

    I read the info on electrostatic cleaning with interest. I also did my own searching.
    What I found mildly amusing was that Rob’s quote refers to the spray droplets being positively charges, while the firsdt article on my web search (from Bunzl) describes using negatively charged droplets.
    However, it then goes on to say that surfaces to be disinfected are normally neutral, which is what I would have expected. Which means that the droplets are not attracted to the surface.
    It does mean, though, that the droplets repel each other, and so the spray remains very fine, and once on the surface, will hopefully remain charged. It does not matter whether the charge is positive or negative; it does matter that all the droplets have the same charge, stopping them grouping into drops. Instead they should spread out uniformly on the surface to be cleaned. And then spread into the nooks and crannies.

    And electrostatics is a branch of physics. It is also what makes sparks and crackling noises when you pull on or off synthetic fabrics in dry air, allows you to stick balloons on the wall, make people’s hair stand on end. And at the high energy end of things, lightning.

    • Mr(s) Entitled says:

      Nice explanation. Like putting magnets together with the same poles.

    • Dubious says:

      Well Rob did say he wasn’t good at physics or Chemistry…..although personally I think electrostatics would be both physics and Chemistry….I say that as a chemist myself…i.e someone who likes physics but not the maths…

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