United offering masks, hand sanitizer to fliers. (CBS News)

United Airlines offering passengers face masks and hand sanitizer wipes

Passengers boarding a United Airlines flight will receive a packet containing a face mask and hand sanitizer wipes, the airline said. United now joins a list of other U.S. carriers ramping up sanitization habits to show potential customers that it’s safe to fly again.

United CEO Oscar Munoz said Monday the “United Clean Plus” kits also contain a snack and a bottled water. The masks are for passengers who don’t already have their own, he said.

United last month began requiring passengers to wear face masks, along with Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines and Southwest Airlines.

Airlines have been hit particularly hard in recent weeks by the coronavirus pandemic. Delta, JetBlue Airways and Southwest all saw passengers cancel flights days after COVID-19 cases began rising in March. Reduced bookings have hurt some airlines’ quarterly earnings. The entire industry could lose $21 billion in revenue this year, the International Air Transport Association said.

United has reduced flights, frozen hiring and asked employees to volunteer for unpaid leave for up to six months as the airline struggles with weak demand. The company temporarily grounded an unspecified number of planes and reduced its passenger-carrying capacity by 20% on international flights and 10% in the U.S. last month.

Next month every United flight will be sanitized with an electrostatic spray and all surfaces will be disinfected before every departure, the company said.

Almost every airline said it is stepping up cleaning of planes, sometimes including the use of misting machines to spray anti-viral chemicals inside the cabin. They are also trying to persuade passengers that air inside the cabin is safe to breathe.

Airlines need to fill seats again if they hope to restore billions in lost income. They don’t typically make money unless a plane is more than 66% full, according to CBS News correspondent Kris Van Cleave. Major airlines have cut capacity by up to 90% to cope with a roughly 97% slide in customer demand for flights, he reported recently.

Beyond face masks, some airlines are blocking some or all middle seats to create social distancing. That’s possible now on most flights with weak demand for seating, but will become more difficult when passengers begin returning in bigger numbers. It is also more difficult on smaller regional jets because passengers could be seated closer to each other to balance the plane’s load.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Do you see a typo or an error? Let us know.