4 Gross Things Airlines Do to Save Money

While most carriers are taking appropriate measures to ensure the health and safety of their crew and passengers, travelers should know about the few icky practices in play.

Air travel has been among the most hard-hit industries throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but the stats may be even more dreary than you realize. Airlines for America—which advocates on behalf of its members (including American, Delta, United, Southwest, Hawaiian, Alaska, and JetBlue Airlines) to shape policies that promote safety and security—released data in early August showing that U.S. airline passenger volume remains 74 percent below last year’s levels and that it’s unlikely to see a return to 2019 passenger volumes before 2023-24. Learn which airline has received the most complaints during the pandemic.

That means many airlines are suffering financially from a lack of bookings, but they’re also facing a double whammy of having to spend more money than ever on protective gear, cleaning products and protocols, and other measures to ensure crew and passenger safety.

The good news is that most airlines are doing their part. “My employer seems to have really gone out of their way to ensure a clean, safe, flying experience,” says a longtime pilot for Delta. “They have blocked the middle seat on all flights, clean the aircraft between every flight, and changed the boarding and deplaning process. If anything, I would say now is the best time to fly, but I am sure I am slightly biased.” That may seem outrageous—but here’s why one nurse isn’t afraid to fly right now.

The bad news? A few airlines are cutting some corners in order to protect their bottom lines.

Skipping thorough cleanings between flights

While most major airlines have stepped up their cleaning protocols specifically for COVID-19, it looks as though the extra effort is becoming a financial burden to some. Effective in August, Southwest Airlines began prioritizing disinfecting high-touch areas, including the bathrooms and tray tables. What’s fallen off their to-do list? Seatbelts and armrests. The move helps balance the demands of an increasing flight schedule, allowing for quicker turnaround time between flights. Still, their website’s Coronavirus Travel Information page says the procedures “meet or exceed” recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and WHO. If you’d like a little extra peace of mind, these areas are easy enough to clean yourself with disinfectant wipes—one of 11 things you should own if you plan to travel in the next six months.

Delaying fumigation of a cockroach-infested plane

There are many reasons why you should keep your shoes on during a flight, but you probably would never have guessed this one. “Many airplanes have roaches in the galleys, even first-class galleys,” says an American Airlines flight attendant who’s been on the job for several decades. “They tend to live in the cracks between the ovens, where food gets stuck. If we see roaches, we are supposed to report it. Then the plane gets taken out of service and gets fumigated—but the fumigation process takes an aircraft off service for about 24 hours, so the plane might continue to fly a few more flights before the scheduled fumigation.” It would cost the airline more money to immediately take the plane out of service because of the domino effect it would have on other flights, so they choose a more convenient time instead. Here are more surprising secrets flight attendants won’t tell you.

Offering to pay for passengers’ COVID-19–related funerals

This may sound like a dark and twisted joke, but not to Emirates Airlines—it’s now providing financial assistance for medical expenses, quarantine costs, and yes, even funerals for passengers who test positive for the virus during a trip. While the aim is to instill confidence in anyone on the fence about traveling, one could argue it seems more focused on the health of the airline’s bottom line by enticing people to book a flight against their better judgment. The coverage is immediately effective for customers until October 31 and valid for 31 days from the moment they fly the first leg of their journey.

In a statement about this industry-first coverage, HH Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Emirates Group Chairman and Chief Executive, said: “Emirates is proud to lead the way in boosting confidence for international travel. We know people are yearning to fly as borders around the world gradually re-open, but they are seeking flexibility and assurances should something unforeseen happen during their travel. It is an investment on our part, but we are putting our customers first, and we believe they will welcome this initiative.” It’s worth noting that travelers must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before they’re allowed on an Emirates flight. Time will tell if anyone takes them up on their, ahem, generous offer. Americans can’t even travel to these 31 countries right now.

Putting passengers in middle seats

Under normal circumstances, nobody wants to be crammed into a middle seat. But in the age of coronavirus? Nobody wants to have somebody crammed into the seat next to them, rubbing elbows and knees. Currently, Southwest has committed to leaving middle seats open through “at least October 31 to provide customers more personal space onboard.” Of course, if you’re a family traveling together, you’re welcome to sit together. Likewise, Delta is blocking middle seats through September 30, 2020, and flight attendants are reminding customers to give each other extra space when deplaning, too. Understandably, every seat that’s not filled on a flight costs the airline money, which means these carriers are eating that cost. So who’s more focused on their financials than social distancing? American Airlines, who stopped blocking middle seats on July 1; as well as United, Frontier, Spirit, and other low-cost carriers. Thankfully, there are seven secrets to avoid flying on a crowded plane if you’d like to ensure you have a little more breathing room.

Flight AttendantsHECTOR RETAMAL/Getty Images

Photos Showing the New Normal of Air Travel

Jill Schildhouse
As Health Editor at Reader's Digest, Jill Schildhouse is an expert in health and wellness, beauty, consumer products and product reviews, travel, and personal finance. She has spent the last 20 years as an award-winning lifestyle writer and editor for a variety of national print and digital publications.