Delta is launching a new passengers contact-tracing initiative as new lockdowns ruin the airline’s plans to stop burning through cash

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A Delta Air Lines Airbus A350-900 XWB. viper-zero / Shutterstock.com
  • Delta Air Lines is introducing a voluntary contact tracing program for international arrivals to the US.
  • Passengers will be asked for their full name, email address, contact numbers, and address in the US to be sent to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • CEO Ed Bastian announced in the same memo that the airline will not achieve its goal of daily losses of $US10 million for the fourth quarter and will fall short by up to $US4 million.
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Delta is taking on contact tracing in the skies as its latest initiative in the fight against COVID-19, becoming the first American carrier to do so, the airline announced on Thursday.

International travellers inbound to the US will be asked to provide five pieces of information as part of the program that will aid health authorities in contact tracing efforts. Most of the information Delta is seeking is already required to book a flight and includes a passenger’s full name, primary and secondary phone numbers, address in the US, and email address.

Participation in the program is voluntary but can help notify passengers if they have been exposed to the virus in the course of their travels, as well as give local health authorities and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention more data to help stop the spread. For flyers utilising Delta’s new quarantine-free flights between Atlanta and Rome, agreeing to contact tracing will be mandatory for when they return to the US.

The service will only be available to passengers flying on Delta-operated flights with a final destination in the US.

Passenger data will be transmitted to the CDC and public health authorities through Customs and Border Protection. Delta currently works with CBP to operate its biometric check-in and boarding systems in place at its international hubs.

Delta flyers are already required to submit a health declaration at check-in affirming that they have no primary symptoms of COVID-19 including a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or greater, feeling feverish, a new persistent cough, and shortness of breath or breathing difficulties.

A COVID-19 positive traveller or even a person exposed to the virus must also wait 14 days from the time of their diagnosis or exposure before stepping on a Delta plane. Most airlines now have these declarations with Frontier Airlines even going as far as performing temperature checks at boarding.

Asymptomatic passengers, however, could spread the virus without knowing. That’s why all major US airlines, including Delta, now require face masks onboard and some will ban passengers who don’t comply. Delta alone has banned over 400 passengers as of late October, including the Navy SEAL that killed Osama bin Laden, Robert O’Neill.

A question of public health or saving the bottom line?

Airlines are walking a fine line as confidence in air travel remains low due to fears of the virus and new lockdown orders. It took seven months for US airports to see over one million passengers in a single day, a feat that took another month to replicate as flyers took to the skies for Thanksgiving.

While all the measures airlines are taking have made air travel safer, with low incidence rates among flight attendants as a key barometer, airlines have an another motive for wanting to stop this pandemic: it’s good for business.

Read more: Airline workers have lower rates of COVID-19 than the general population — and airline CEOs say it’s proof that flying is safe

In the same Thursday memo obtained by Reuters announcing the airline’s new contract tracing program, CEO Ed Bastian said the airline won’t meet its daily cash burn goal of $US10 million. Delta will instead see losses between $US12 million and $US14 million per day in the fourth quarter, with Bastian directly citing an increase in cases across the country as the reason for the reduction in demand.

Airlines are also rushing to take part in the COVID-19 vaccine airlift as the quicker this pandemic is over, the sooner travel will restart. Robert Walpole, vice president for Delta Cargo, told reporters in a Thursday briefing that the Federal Aviation Administration had given the authorization to transport six times the normal amount of Pfizer vaccine on its largest aircraft, the Airbus A350-900 XWB and A330-300.

United Airlines flew the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine to the US in late November as the pharmaceutical company prepares for an expected emergency authorization from the FDA. Delta has been flying test flights and ramping up its vaccine-handling infrastructure in key hubs to prepare for the impending mass transportation effort for the pandemic-ending drugs.

Where some airlines have drawn the line during the pandemic, however, is blocking middle seats. JetBlue Airways, Hawaiian Airlines, and Southwest Airlines have all announced an end to their seat blocking policies, leaving Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines as the only two major US airlines blocking middle seats into 2021.

Read more: United’s CEO argued it’s not a problem that airlines will keep burning tens of millions of cash per day for months

Southwest’s decision to fill its planes came on the heels of a $US1.2 billion third-quarter loss with CEO Gary Kelly saying the seat blocking policy cost the airline $US20 million in lost revenue over the summer.

Delta, however, recently announced an extension to its middle seat blocking policy through March 30, 2021, but raised fares to account for the loss of capacity. And despite the increased losses in the fourth quarter, Bastian still expects Delta to break even on daily operations in the spring.