Coronavirus: Airlines taking different routes to COVID-19 safety, here's what to expect

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Airlines are individually coming up with their own procedures to make passengers feel safe again during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

It's an approach coming under fire by the pilots association.

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The airlines have a great deal of flexibility to decide what safety measures are best. The bottom line is how confident are passengers while there's no vaccine before jumping back on planes for business trip or vacations?

There are no standards and practices for health and safety, so passengers are deciding what makes them feel protected.

"United said if I didn't have a mask, clearly I am prepared, they would provide one for me," said United passenger Zoe Anderson." She was preparing to board a flight from San Francisco to Denver, dressed in a hazardous materials suit, complete with goggles, gloves and booties. "So, I'm feeling relatively OK but clearly going through all the necessary precautions just in case."

Some airlines require masks while others don't. Some are leaving middle seats open when possible to provide distancing while one airline was going to charge for empty buffer seats but backed off when criticized.

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"You can't take this piecemeal, whack-a-mole kind of approach," said Joseph DePete, president of the Airline Pilots Association. "You have to have a standardized methodology dealing with the crisis we have in front of us."

DePete would like the FAA to regulate and enforce coronavirus safety measures, but FAA administrator Steve Dickson sent a letter to DePete saying, "airlines are responsible for the occupational health of their workforce."

That means, for now, there is no industry-wide game plan to protect passengers, flight attendants and pilots. Another unresolved issue is who will pay for new safety protocols. Henry Harteveldt is a leading travel industry analyst and co-founder of Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco.

"It's not like we can build a clean room if you will at an airport," he noted. "But I expect you will see airlines support a health screening. But what they'll say is, the passengers will pay for that."

The largest carrier at SFO, United, is implementing new cabin cleaning, involving electrostatic fogging of each plane's interior. Starting next month, this will be done before each flight. Also, it's instituting back-to-front passenger loading so people pass empty seats. While plexiglass barriers are becoming common, they're not under consideration right now to isolate seats. United says it is open to new industry-wide protocols.

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"If those sorts of efforts materialize, we'd love to be part of that conversation," said Josh Earnest, United's chief communications officer. "But frankly we're not waiting around for other people to make decisions about what we should do."

A major obstacle right now is fear among passengers. Karen Grenci told ABC7 News photographer Dean Smith that another passenger yelled at her when she took her two children to the lavatory.

"There were some people that were really afraid, and if we went to use the restroom, they would push you back and tell you not to come near them," she said.

"Be respectful and kind to each other 'cause we're all losing our patience right now," said Denver bound passenger Sarah Ahles. "I think the best thing we can do is be kind."

With some passengers on edge, and no single approach to safety measures, passengers will be able to select which airlines they think has adopted the best safety measures. But that also makes the comeback of air travel all the more complex.

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