Coronavirus: What are airlines doing to protect travellers?

2 Mar 2020 by Seher Asaf
Emirates flights undergo enhanced cleaning

A number of airlines are stepping up precautionary measures in the wake of the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak that continues to spread around the world.

The coronavirus, which emerged in Wuhan, China, has crossed borders and arrived in more than 50 countries and regions worldwide. Though many carriers have temporarily cut flights or suspended routes to affected regions due to a drop in demand, airlines have also started to adopt measures to help curb the spread of the virus through global travel by introducing measures like limiting in-flight services, disinfecting aircraft, equipping crew with face masks, and conducting temperature checks before allowing passengers to board planes.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) published a list of guidelines airlines should follow to protect passengers and crew from contracting the illness. IATA’s guidelines, which are not mandatory for airlines to follow, cover a range of measures such as screening passengers for fevers, equipping cabin crew with surgical or medical protective masks, and routinely disinfecting aircraft.

Business Traveller Asia-Pacific has reached out to some carriers, including those based in the affected regions, to find out more about the steps they’re taking to protect passengers and crew.

A number of airlines said they are disinfecting aircraft and their lounges more frequently. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it’s unclear how long the virus survives on surfaces, but it appears to behave like other coronaviruses, which could persist on surfaces for a few hours or up to several days. The WHO said cleaning surfaces with a “simple disinfectant” can kill the virus.

Some airlines have advised crew to wear masks, while others have made it mandatory. According to the WHO, those with no respiratory symptoms do not need to wear a medical mask. The WHO recommends the use of masks for people who have symptoms of the virus and for those caring for individuals who have symptoms, such as cough and fever.

A few carriers have also limited their in-flight services to reduce unnecessary contact between passengers and crew. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said the virus can spread between people who are in close contact with one another and through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

Here’s a more detailed look at the different measures specific airlines have taken in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus:

Cathay Pacific

Hong Kong’s flag carrier Cathay Pacific said it is taking a variety of different precautionary measures to prevent the virus from spreading onboard, through its lounges and at the airport.

Measures taken onboard 

The carrier is cleaning and disinfecting its cabins, seats, galleys and washrooms. This includes disinfecting the IFE screens, meal tables, baby bassinet tables, and armrests across the aircraft after every flight, said the airline, using products recommended by IATA and WHO.

Passengers travelling to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific will get “updated health message broadcasts” in an effort to “ensure passengers and crew have the latest information”.

“These broadcasts alert everyone onboard to the current situation and the necessary actions required,” said the airline.

Cathay has also reduced flights to and from mainland China by approximately 90 per cent until the end of March 2020. On its remaining mainland China flights, Cathay has cancelled its trolley services in both first and business class. It will serve meals on a single tray instead. Premium economy and economy class passengers will get a disposable snack bag.

Hot towels, pillows, blankets, magazines and in-flight duty-free sales have also been temporarily suspended on these routes.

The airline has also installed HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arresters) aircraft filtration systems in its cabins that it said can filter 99.999 per cent of dust particles and airborne contaminants such as viruses and bacteria.

“HEPA filters offer a similar level of performance to those used to keep the air clean in hospital operating rooms and industrial clean rooms,” said the airline.

Closing lounges

Cathay has closed three of its lounges at Hong Kong International Airport “until further notice”, namely The Bridge, The Deck and The Pier First Class Lounge due to a lack of demand amid warnings over the spread of the coronavirus. The Wing First Class, The Pier Business Class Lounge and Business Class Lounges will remain open.

The airline said it’s also taking precautionary measures at its lounges in Hong Kong, Shanghai Pudong and Beijing by cleaning surfaces in washrooms, lifts and other high-use areas “more frequently”. It has removed all magazines from the lounges as well.

It’s also replacing its buffet with single-serve, pre-prepared meals, and will use disposable cutlery in the Beijing and Shanghai Pudong lounges.

At the airport 

Passengers flying to or from Hong Kong with Cathay will be subject to temperature checks at Hong Kong International Airport.

Passengers can also find hand sanitisers throughout Hong Kong International Airport, including at Cathay’s check-in counters, immigration and security check-points, restricted departure areas, boarding gates, arrivals and at the Skypier. Cathay lounges in Hong Kong, Shanghai Pudong and Beijing also have sanitiser readily available at the reception desk.

Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines (SIA) said it is using a “strong disinfectant” to clean surfaces such as tray tables, windows and IFE screens on all aircraft flying to Hong Kong and mainland China.

SIA’s cleaning practices prior to the coronavirus outbreak for all aircraft arriving in Singapore included removing food waste, replacing headrests, pillow covers, bedsheets and blankets with “fresh sets”, as well as cleaning surfaces like tray tables and vacuuming carpets.

Aircraft arriving from China go through a deep cleaning measure known as fogging. Before the procedure, the cleaning team from aviation services provider SATS enter the aircraft to remove all blankets to prepare the cabin for fogging. Soiled and unused linen are removed from the planes and disinfected before being sent to the laundry for “high temperature washing”.

The fogging procedure takes about 90 minutes for an A380 aircraft, and 60 minutes for all other types of aircraft.

Fogging equipment

Fogging equipment used on SIA’s China flights

Another round of cleaning is conducted with disinfecting wipes after the fogging.

Soft furnishings are replaced with the fresh ones, including pillow cases, headrests and padded bedsheets.

Food and beverage

The airline has also implemented in-flight changes to minimise contact between passengers and crew on flights to Hong Kong and mainland China.

It will offer its satay from the galley instead of serving it to each passenger with a trolley on business class. Ice-cream desserts will be replaced with “pre-set” desserts for business, premium economy and economy class passengers. Pre-plated cheese instead of its usual cheese boards, and pre-cut fruits instead of whole fruits will be given to first and business class passengers.

On SIA’s Shanghai and Beijing routes, business class passengers will get their meals served in trays instead of SIA’s table layout (a three-course meal service).

The food on all SIA’s China flights will be catered from Singapore, instead of local catering.

Cabin service

Hot towels service will be replaced with “pre-set” wet towelettes. Take-off drink service has been suspended, there are no Krisshop sales, magazines in the back of the seat (except for the safety folder and airsick bag) have been removed, and arrival cards as well as feedback forms will not be distributed.

The airline said it takes the temperature of crew at its control centre before every flight.

So what happens if someone with the virus has flown on an SIA aircraft? The airline said it has “rigorous disinfection procedures” in place. Areas within a six feet radius of the infected passengers will be disinfected with virucidal disinfectants, which refer to any physical or chemical agent that  destroys viruses. All surface areas that the passenger may have come into contact with will also be sanitised.

Japan Airlines

Disinfecting aircraft on China routes

Japan Airlines (JAL) said it disinfects aircraft flying from Japan to Beijing, Dalian, Tianjin, Shanghai (Hongqiao and Pudong), and Guangzhou “during the overnight hours in japan”. Areas include seat tables, armrests, IFE monitors and controllers, lavatories (including door knob, sinks) and/or any areas where customers may touch during a flight.

An in-flight announcement will urge passengers on these routes to report symptoms such as coughing and/or a fever to the “quarantine officer” stationed at the airport.

The airline added that each of its planes are installed with a HEPA system filter to “maintain the cabin’s air purity levels”.

Crew required to wear face masks

JAL’s cabin crew are wearing face masks on international and domestic flights. Its airport staff will also wear face masks, it said.

Health information

JAL said a document that includes “relevant information” on the coronavirus has been created by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. This document will be given to passengers when they check in for select flights at airports in the following cities: Beijing, Dalian, Tianjin, Shanghai (Hongqiao and Pudong), Guangzhou, and Hong Kong.

All Nippon Airways (ANA)

In-flight meals

The airline will separately wrap and serve meals in its lounge.

Disinfecting cabins

Like other carriers on this list, ANA will also disinfect cabins using an alcohol disinfectant on tables, armrests, IFE screens, toilets and other areas in the aircraft like door knobs that passengers tend to touch with their hands. Aircraft flown on the following routes will be disinfected: From Japan to Shenyang, Beijing, Dalian, Qingdao, Wuhan, Chengdu, Shanghai (Hongqiao and Pudong), Hangzhou, Xiamen, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong.

In-flight announcements by cabin attendants

ANA has been making on-board announcement asking passengers with symptoms such as a cough or fever, or those taking cough or fever medication to report to an airport quarantine inspector upon arrival. Announcements are made on the following flights: From Japan to Shenyang, Beijing, Dalian, Qingdao, Wuhan, Chengdu, Shanghai (Hongqiao and Pudong), Hangzhou, Xiamen, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong.

Masks and gloves

Cabin attendants working on the airline’s domestic and international flights will wear masks “to reassure passengers”. They will also wear gloves when serving food and drink items, the airline added.

ANA said some of its ground staff may wear masks as well. Lounge staff may also wear gloves when serving food.

Distribution of health cards 

Similar to the health information distributed by JAL, ANA will also hand out health cards created by the Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare to passengers on flights to the following destinations from Japan: Shenyang, Beijing, Dalian, Qingdao, Wuhan, Chengdu, Shanghai (Hongqiao and Pudong), Hangzhou, Xiamen, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong.

Korean Air

Korean Air said it has formed an “emergency response team to deal with the spread of the new coronavirus”.

The airline, which continues to fly to destinations in China, said it has “strengthened disinfection” since January 30 for planes that have flown on routes to China. The airline said it sterilises planes arriving from large cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Qingdao and Guangzhou to Incheon Airport upon arrival. Aircraft flying to other destinations in China will be disinfected “periodically” in order to actively prevent the spread of infection.

Disposable cutlery will be used to serve in-flight meals on all China routes, which will then be disposed of in sealed plastic bags to prevent cross infection, the airline said.

Comfort items such as blankets and pillows are not provided on its routes to China, and in-flight meals for return flights from Hong Kong, Beijing, Taipei and Shanghai, which are usually supplied locally, will be loaded at the time of departure from Incheon.

Korean Air said it has advised its flight attendants to wear masks and plastic gloves on all routes, and the airline has equipped planes with equipment “in preparation for any possible infection onboard”, such as masks for passengers seated near suspicious patients and hazmat suits for flight attendants who may need to take care of onboard patients.

Masks and hand sanitisers are available at airports in South Korea.


Emirates has introduced enhanced cleaning and disinfection measures on its aircraft.

The airline said it is using an “approved chemical that is proven to kill viruses and germs” on all aircraft departing from its hub in Dubai and put an focus on surface cleaning.

The cleaning process includes a wipe down of surfaces and areas such as windows, tray tables, seatback screens, armrests, seats, in-seat controls, panels, air vents and overhead lockers in the cabin, lavatories, galleys and crew rest areas.

The airline said all of this is done in addition to other normal procedures such as changing head rest covers on seats, replacing reading materials, and vacuuming.

Emirates’ aircraft are fitted with HEPA cabin air filters which it says are proven to filter out 99.97% of viruses.

Coronavirus: Emirates implements “complete disinfection of all cabins”


American Airlines

American Airlines said it is working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Department of State and public health officials on the latest developments.

Inflight dining and beverages

American Airlines said all catering equipment on “key international flights” is undergoing the following “additional” sanitation and disinfection procedures:

  • All tableware, dishes, cutlery and glassware are being sanitised/disinfected before washing.
  • All unused inbound supplies are being discarded.
  • Inbound linen and headphones are being sanitised separately.
  • All galley equipment, including carts and carriers, are being sanitised separately.

The airline added that on “key international flights”, its mid-cabin bar service will be adjusted and self-serve snack and fruit baskets will be removed. Instead, flight attendants will provide food and beverage items upon request.

Disinfecting aircraft 

The airline said its aircraft are cleaned each day at “key touch points on their journeys” with an EPA-approved disinfectant and that all of its aircraft  undergo a deep cleaning procedure on a regularly scheduled basis.

American said it is also enhancing its cleaning procedures on international flights and aircraft that remain overnight at an airport which will include a “more thorough cleaning” of all hard surfaces, including tray tables and armrests.

The airline said most of its aircraft are equipped with High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters to clean the air.

American is also providing hand sanitisers and sanitising wipes for crew members on all international flights across the Pacific Ocean and to Italy.

The carrier hand sanitising stations are also available for customers in key locations throughout the US airports.

Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand said it is “thoroughly” cleaning its aircraft and lounges with a “stronger” disinfectant product. The airline said its jet aircraft is also fitted with hospital grade air filtration systems “which filter out viruses”.

The carrier said it will also make hand sanitiser readily available at airports, lounges and on its aircraft. It is also encouraging regular hand-washing.

Air New Zealand has also equipped its aircraft with biohazard kits, gloves, hand sanitiser and face masks.

Business Traveller Asia-Pacific has also asked British Airways and Qantas what measures they are taking to protect passengers in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

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