Delta makes mobile hospital pods to transport troops with COVID-19

A welder inside a shipping container

Many airlines have outsourced much of their maintenance, repair and overhaul functions, but Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) and American Airlines (NASDAQ: AAL) have huge in-house operations that also do work for other operators and the military.

That mechanical horsepower is now part of the private-sector crusade to defeat the coronavirus. Unlike apparel and auto makers shifting to make personal protective equipment and ventilators, airlines are service providers. But they aren’t letting that stand in the way..

Delta’s Technical Operations division and Flight Products subsidiary are working furiously to convert up to 76 shipping containers into mobile hospital rooms for the military to transport troops who have contracted COVID-19, or been exposed to other infectious agents, back home.

The reusable isolation pods are outfitted with negative pressure compartments featuring HEPA filtration to help prevent the spread of pathogens and are designed to attach inside military transport aircraft.

Each pod has an anteroom for attendants and medical personnel and a patient room that can hold up to 32 seated occupants. Fewer patients can be carried if any are on gurneys, Delta said on its website Monday.

Delta and two partners had 48 hours last week to digest the U.S. Air Force’s technical requirements, develop a design and make a proposal, Flight Products President Rick Salantiri said in a Delta-produced video.

“Having literally a military hospital containment ward on a military aircraft provides them incredible amounts of flexibility,” he said.

TechOps specialists cut both ends off the container, cut in windows, fabricated door frames, bolted on support struts, hung sheet metal walls, installed electrical systems and painted the containers. 

“Welding, pneumatics, electrical, fabrication, painting. Literally everything we do to keep airplanes flying is encompassed in the pod,” said Don Mitacek, senior vice president of technical operations.

More than 20% of TechOps employees are military veterans. “I served in the Army. My grandfather also served in the Army. It means a lot to me to use my skills to help people in the military that are sick,” said shop technician Sean Gregory.

Delta expects to deliver 25 units in the coming months, with the Air Force having an option to increase the order by an additional 50 units.

Early this month, Delta Flight Products sprang into action, making plastic face shields for hospitals in New York City and Atlanta. Flight Products is the innovation lab within Delta that helps the airline design complex interior modifications to aircraft, such as installing wireless entertainment systems.

Face shields provide a barrier against potential hazards in medical settings and help extend the life of N95 respirators.

As of April 17, the subsidiary, aided by TechOps, had increased face-shield production to 1,500 per day and will soon be able to make 5,000 per day, according to Delta.

The team was working at the time to fulfill a Department of Veterans Affairs request for 20,000 face shields for medical facilities in Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina.

American Airlines is also making face shields, at its big maintenance facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Plastics Shop is producing about 200 units per day, as supplies allow, American said last week. 

The White House referred American to Stop the Spread, a coalition of CEOs and business leaders working to support the government’s response to COVID-19. Stop the Spread paired American with Adaptive Energy, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, company with expertise in designing and manufacturing advanced scientific products. Adaptive Energy provided schematics that helped the Tech team get started.

American said employees performing tasks like temperature checks will use the face shields, and additional shields will be donated to medical facilities in need.