Some might say that flying has never been cleaner. And they would be right. Airlines, airports and aircraft manufacturers are going to extraordinary lengths to get passengers flying again and that means upping the confidence factor in taking to the skies while the coronavirus continues to rage on the ground.
Research this month from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) shows that just 45% of travelers are willing to return to airports at this time. Some 58% of those surveyed said that they have avoided air travel, with 33% suggesting that they will avoid travel in future as a continued measure to reduce the risk of catching COVID-19.
“If anything, consumers have actually got rather more cautious and we have a majority saying now that they would wait more than six months before traveling,” IATA chief economist Brian Pearce told Bloomberg News. “The survey is telling us that passengers are rather cautious.”
The air on a plane remains one of the top concerns for flyers. Breathing is now a contact sport with all sorts of consequences built in. Are airlines safe to sit in for five or six hours at a clip, often packed like fruit heading for market? Are masks still necessary to wear onboard? What if the person behind you has a fever a smidge lower than the allowable degree? What if the person in the middle seat starts coughing? Should you touch the seatback button or use the tray table?
Airlines are claiming that flying has never been cleaner or safer and, in many ways, they are right. But then we have never had a virus like the novel coronavirus.
In an effort to quell fears and answer those questions that can be answered, Boeing Product Marketing Director Jim Haas recently spoke to the fact that the air circulation inside a typical aircraft is, indeed, clean and has been that way since the mid-1990s when HEPA filters were introduced. The filters are medical grade, often used in hospital isolation chambers and operating rooms to scrub the tiniest particles — including viruses — from the air with 99.9%+ effectiveness.
The HEPA filters have not been tested with the COVID-19 virus per se but have been tested with particles the size of the virus and deemed extremely effective at removal of particulate matter. A new measure that is being recommend to airlines at this time, according to Boeing, is to maximize cabin airflow/HEPA filtration not only during flight, but also on the ground to filter cabin air during passenger boarding and deplaning.
But it is not just the air moving through the filter, it is also the air in its flow path that makes flying into a reasonable risk to take.
“A key point that many passengers do not understand is the direction the air flows,” said Haas. “Many think the air flows from front to back. It does not. It comes in from the top, comes down onto the seat and exits out, and there is continuous ventilation in the cabin. Cabin air is exchanged every two to three minutes, which is much faster than office buildings and other interior spaces where people go. We designed it specifically to do this. And it is one of key points we want people to understand.”
Aircraft makers, including Boeing, Airbus and Embraer are working together and sharing notes on what is working and what is not to optimize the air quality inflight. Haas notes that this part of the business is not a competition. There is too much at stake. But he also notes that the systems have been in place for some 25 years, so it is not the technology that is new when it comes to air filtration. What is new is the disinfecting practices ahead of boarding coupled with the temperature monitoring of passengers at the gate.
To that end, airlines are looking at disinfecting practices and devices that could be instrumental in killing bacteria and viruses from all surfaces passengers touch giving each passengers a completely sanitized environment on takeoff.
Among those approaches are the use of sanitizing chemicals, including Purell-like liquids proven to be safe for humans, nontoxic or and not harmful to furnishings and equipment and completely deadly to viruses, bacteria and fungi. Periodic spraying of anti-microbial coating is also necessary to create a hostile environment for lingering germs that may not die so quickly.
In addition, new ways of dispatching ultraviolet rays have been deployed to destroy lingering unseen enemies on textiles and other surfaces. Boeing has been beta-testing a portable wand that evenly radiates the deadly UV rays on a front to back sweep of the empty aircraft before passengers board. A built-in UV solution for disinfecting bathroom areas is now in the prototype stage as well, but because that involves a structural change for inflight use, regulatory approvals are necessary and, likely, years away.
“We are working with a variety of industries, such as IATA, and other airline manufacturers, the ICCAIA (International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations) and we are working with airports — what happens at the airport is one of the first layers of travel. It is important for travelers to have a consistent experience country to country. We are also working with researchers and academia to check our modeling and make sure the way we understand the virus lines up with what everyone else understands,” said Haas.
“We see the necessity of having a multilayered approach to protect the passenger during the entire journey: from home to airport to departure to in the cleaning and disinfecting and all the tech in place — and then there is the cabin experience inflight. Air cleaning and filtration, arrangements of seats and role of face masks — all put together — makes flying safe.”
Haas notes that HEPA filters can only clean the air that circulates through them, so if a passenger sneezes and there is no filter between them, the filter cannot clean that air. That is why in the current health emergency it’s important to work across the industry on additional protections — such as face masks — that further help mitigate risks, he says.
While each airline must adopt its own policies, airline manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus do much of the heavy lifting to make sure the craft interior has all the structural advantages required for flying safely during COVID-19 times and that airline customers have the research and tested recommendations by which to model their policies.
For instance, Singapore Airlines is assuring that all lavatories feature contactless faucets and have anti-bacterial hand wash. SIA is also looking at a trial of an ultraviolet light cleaning procedure on the ground for its lavatories before every flight. To give passengers added reassurance, the airline now provides all passengers with a Care Kit that includes a surgical mask, anti-bacterial hand wipes and hand sanitizer.
As for seat distancing as a prophylactic against exposure, some airlines are pledging to uphold middle seat vacancies while others are not, suggesting such a financially crippling move for an airline is more of a PR stunt than a proven protection against contracting the virus.
United and American Airlines have eschewed the practice while other airlines, such as Southwest, Delta and JetBlue have committed to block all or some seats for social distancing assurances, at least for a time. Sen. Bernie Sanders and federal health officials recently criticized American Airlines recently for altering policy toward booking flights to capacity.
Currently, there are no federal requirements to distance travelers on commercial aircraft. Nor is there a federal mandate guiding the wearing of masks inflight. Last week, the Departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, and Health and Human Services jointly issued guideline recommendations for the air travel industry in a document called the “Runway to Recovery,” policies and the enforcement of those policies remain entirely in the hands of each airline. So far, beyond the original entrance of the virus to the U.S., no COVID-19 breakout clusters have been traced back to sick passengers aboard certain flights.