How Covid-safe is your airline? Rankings and accreditation abound

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American Airlines, like Delta Air Lines and United, has strengthened its cleaning protocols between flights. Photo Credit: Courtesy of American Airlines

During the summer and fall months last year, U.S. airlines tirelessly pushed the message that commercial aircraft offer a safe environment during the Covid-19 pandemic due to their hospital grade HEPA filters, mandatory mask policies, enhanced cleaning procedures and reduced food and beverage service.

Now, as newly vaccinated Americans contemplate returning to the skies, they'll find several websites and organizations that have gotten into the business of rating or accrediting airlines and airports for their health safety protocols. 

Among the players are the airport accreditation programs run by the industry trade group Airports Council International (ACI) and by the Airline Passenger Experience Association (APEX), whose members include airlines and vendors to the airline industry.

Rating services include websites Skytrax, Safe Travel Barometer and the aptly named Airline Ratings.

In recent months, the focus of conversation within the airline industry and the broader travel industry has moved from the need to establish and promote health protocols to the urgency of developing interoperable digital health passports. 

Still, for many millions of Americans who haven't flown during the pandemic, the question of health safety is sure to remain front and center as they begin, often gingerly, to begin trip planning. A late February Harris poll of 2,000 U.S. adults found that just 18% of respondents were highly comfortable with flying at that point in the pandemic, compared with 53% who still were highly uncomfortable with flying.

Meanwhile, in 2020 just 22% of Americans boarded a plane, according to a survey conducted in January for Airlines for America by Ipsos. That's only half of the 45% of Americans who flew in 2019.

ACI rolled out its Airport Health Accreditation program in August. As of early March, 35 U.S. airports had received accreditation, the organization's website showed, along with 247 other airports around the world.

The program uses standards developed in accordance with recommendations of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which is the civil aviation arm of the United Nations. Those standards relate to cleaning and disinfection, physical distancing, staff protection, airport physical layouts and other factors.

To obtain accreditation, airports self-report the health safety measures they've implemented to ACI, which follows up with a virtual meeting and may also ask for photos and videos as backup.

Similarly, APEX says its health safety certification program for airlines is based upon a review of 58 touchpoints, starting with online check-in and continuing through to the plane's arrival at its destination.

Certification review is conducted remotely via photos, videos and other documentation of specific operations across airline networks, APEX CEO Joe Leader said. The process, he added, normally takes weeks of back and forth.

As of early March, 11 airlines had been awarded APEX's highest Diamond Health Safety certification, while four others have received the middle-tier Platinum certification.

Among the airline rating websites, Airline Ratings uses a fairly simple system to determine whether it considers an airline Covid-19 compliant. To be judged compliant, an airline must meet standards in four of six criteria, which include items such as a mask mandate for staff, daily aircraft deep cleans, altered meal service and social distancing during boarding and deplaning. 

Airline Ratings says it gathers such info from airline websites.

Safe Travel Barometer has a more thorough rating criteria, featuring 19 health safety protocols for airlines. Carriers are given a rating on a 1-to-5 scale for their Covid safety, plus they are also graded on 13 criteria related to service and traveler convenience. All 32 items are included in Safe Travel Barometer's broader Safe Travel Score.

The service also grades hotels, airports and other travel companies.

Information used for the ratings is initially taken from company websites or provided by companies themselves, but CEO Virendra Jain said Safe Travel Barometer also has a staff of 25 to 30 people who verify supplier assertions.

Jay Sorensen, president of the consulting firm IdeaWorks, said that to be truly valuable, certification and rating entities need to make evaluations in person. 

"You need to get out into the field to get real information," said Sorensen, whose firm often publishes reports on various aspects of the airline industry.

One rating service that has put evaluators into the field is Skytrax. The U.K.-based company has had a staff of 10 people visiting airlines and airports when Covid restrictions have allowed, CEO Edward Plaisted said. Those field agents review set lists of protocols related to cleanliness, social distancing, mask-wearing and more, even deploying hand-held meters that measure bacteria on surfaces such as armrests and seatbelts.

Skytrax, however, has not yet evaluated any U.S. airlines or airports. Plans to have such reviews by April were delayed by an uptick in Covid restrictions over the winter, Plaisted said. 

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