Delta Air Lines battles coronavirus fears with free flight changes

(Scott Sommerdorf | Tribune File Photo) Delta's first flight from Paris touches down at Salt Lake International Airport, June 2, 2008.

Besides advertising low fares or easy connections, Delta Air Lines — which operates 73% of flights that depart from Salt Lake City International Airport — is pushing a new selling point: expertise in battling the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“For more than a decade, Delta has been preparing for such a scenario,” Delta CEO Ed Bastian wrote in an email to passengers. “We’ve learned from past experience with outbreaks like H1N1 and Ebola and have continually refined and improved our ability to protect our customers.”

For passengers who are uncertain about booking upcoming flights because of coronavirus concerns, Delta (and many other airlines) are now waiving change fees for all flights purchased during March.

It also is allowing customers to make a one-time change to some areas hard-hit by COVID-19, such as China, South Korea and Italy, for travel booked through May 31.

Delta says few operations at its Salt Lake City hub have been affected by the coronavirus so far.

For example, while it has canceled international flights from China and reduced them from other areas hit hard by the COVID-19 disease such as South Korea, Japan and Italy, that has not affected any international flights to or from Salt Lake City.

“We continue to operate a normal domestic schedule,” Delta spokewoman Martha Whitt said Monday.

[Read more: Complete coverage of the coronavirus]

One way that Delta is trying to calm passengers is by talking about state-of-the-art air circulation systems on most aircraft. They blend fresh outside air, which is sterilized with a high-temperature compressor and ozone purifier, with existing cabin air. The blend then goes through an industrial-grade HEPA filter.

“HEPA air filters extract more than 99.999% of even the tiniest viruses, as small as 0.01 micrometers,” Delta says online. “Coronaviruses, which range from 0.08 to 0.16 micrometers in size, are filtered by the HEPA filter.”

Delta is stepping up the cleaning and sanitization of its aircraft.

“We’re continually evaluating precautionary measures and adding cleaning procedures as a result of COVID-19,” Whitt said.

For example, it says it closely follows recommendations from federal and international health organizations and “meets or exceeds their guidance on health precautions related to coronavirus” — and set up a command center in Atlanta to keep up on developments.

For transoceanic flights, Delta has begun a “fogging technique” with disinfectant to sanitize entire aircraft. Fogging takes place after an initial cleaning, with tray tables lowered and overhead bins and lavatory doors open. Seatback entertainment touch screens are given an extra cleanse using disinfectant wipes.

Also, Delta says tableware, dishes, linen and headphones from transoceanic flights are segregated and washed and sanitized separately than from such materials coming from other flights. Other incoming supplies are discarded.

“We are also increasing our supply of wellness items such as hand sanitizer, gloves and surgical masks for customers and crews on all flights in and out of Asia,” the airline says online.

Delta also says it is putting hand sanitizers on all ticket counters, boarding gates, help centers, baggage offices and Sky Clubs, especially at its hub airports such as Salt Lake City.

Delta also says it has increased cleaning schedules for gate areas at airports. It is also more frequently disinfecting check-in kiosks, which passengers must touch to use.

Also as a sign of the times, Salt Lake City International Airport now even launched a webpage showing where all of its hand sanitizer dispensers are.

It also has ordered more of them, said airport spokeswoman Nancy Volmer. Amid coronavirus fears, it also has crews cleaning and sanitizing door handles, chairs and other areas more often. And it reviewed its emergency plans on how to handle people with contagious diseases.