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Safe travels

30 Oct 2020 by Tom Otley
Delta Clean

What are airlines doing to reassure passengers about flying amidst the pandemic?

There are many reasons people aren’t flying at the moment. Lockdowns and quarantines make it either difficult or close to impossible to get to many destinations, and airlines – and the travel industry as a whole – haven’t had much luck so far in persuading governments to relax these restrictions. It’s not all bad news: China, for example, saw domestic flights push past pre-Covid levels ahead of its National Day public holiday in October, according to aviation analytics company Cirium, but much of this was leisure travel.

Meanwhile, airlines have been using this period to introduce new protocols to reassure passengers that when travel does return, they can travel safely. From ramping up cleaning procedures to handing out hygiene kits, carriers are exploring ways to lure wary travellers back to the skies. Here we look at how new safety measures have fundamentally changed the experience of flying.

BOARDING

All airports are mandating that passengers should wear face coverings unless there is a medical reason for not doing so, and social distancing is in place throughout the terminals. Even so, travellers can often end up in close contact during boarding, whether they are lined up at the gate, waiting on an airbridge or standing in the aisle while other people put their bags into overhead lockers.

Pre-pandemic, a number of airlines were exploring ways to make the boarding process as speedy as possible. Now, many have traded efficiency for safety and are boarding small groups of passengers using one of the slowest ways to get people on to an aircraft: back-to-front boarding. This can sometimes involve boarding passengers in economy class before those in premium cabins. While US carriers Delta Air Lines and United have adopted back-to-front boarding, the former’s premium cabin customers can get on at their leisure at any time during general boarding, although it says boarding is limited to ten customers at a time. United is also allowing passengers in premium cabins to board at any time.

Virgin Atlantic is promising (along with Heathrow airport) that all of the seating at the gate will be sanitised, boarding will start from the back of the aircraft (with Upper Class passengers able to get on at any time), all customers will be asked to scan their own boarding pass and hold up their passport for inspection to minimise contact, and all Virgin staff will be wearing face masks.

Emirates flights undergo enhanced cleaning

AIR QUALITY

One question passengers may have as they weigh up returning to the skies is: how clean is the air on board? As far as the airlines are concerned, the answer is “very” thanks to the high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters fitted on modern aircraft, a technology also used in most hospitals around the world.

The air on a plane is a mix of recirculated and outside air. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all commercial jet aircraft built after the late 1980s recirculate 10 to 50 per cent of the air in the cabin by mixing it with outside air. The recirculated air passes through a series of filters 20-30 times per hour.

In most newer aircraft, recycled air passes through HEPA filters, which capture 99.9 per cent of particles (including bacteria, fungi and larger viruses or virus clumps) measuring 0.1-0.3 micrometres in diameter. The virus that causes Covid-19 is about 0.125 micrometres (125 nanometers) in diameter, according to a study published in the Nature Public Health Emergency Collection, and so fits into the range captured by HEPA filters, although it is still unclear how effective the filters are in capturing the pathogen causing Covid-19.

Since the start of the pandemic, most major carriers have emphasized the role of these filters in their fleets. American Airlines says that on its A320 and B737 families of aircraft, air is filtered through two HEPA filters located near the forward cargo compartment. Its B777s have eight of the filters, including two over each aisle near the middle of the aircraft cabin. Filters are changed regularly to ensure an uninterrupted flow of clean air into the cabin.

Enhanced cleaning on an Easyjet aircraft

CLEANING

Most airlines have adopted rigorous new cleaning procedures, in many cases following guidance from government health departments. Videos published by a number of carriers show armrests, headrests, tray tables, washrooms and other surfaces that passengers come into contact with being cleaned with what they call “hospital-grade” disinfectant.

Some are going even further. In February, Singapore Airlines announced that it had begun using fogging machines to clean its aircraft operating inbound China flights, a procedure that involves spraying disinfectant on to cabin interiors. It takes about an hour and a half to fog an A380, and an hour for all other types of aircraft, the carrier said. On other routes, a SIA spokesperson said all aircraft were thoroughly cleaned before and after flights and that this “may include disinfection fogging procedures that are over and above regulatory requirements if necessary”. Carriers including American Airlines and United are also using fogging machines on select routes.

Electrostatic sprayers have been adopted by some airlines, particularly in the US. In May, Delta said it was sanitising every flight at each of its hubs using such sprayers, which offered a “safe and effective way to thoroughly clean an aircraft cabin from floor to ceiling”. The sprayers electrically charge and disperse liquid disinfectant in a fine mist that clings to surfaces such as seats, IFE screens, armrests, doors, washrooms and galleys. United and American have also added electrostatic sprayers to their cleaning regimes.

Others are even turning to ultraviolet lighting to disinfect aircraft, a technology that has been used in hospitals and in self-driving airport cleaning robots. In July, Jetblue claimed to be the first US airline to deploy ultraviolet light to zap germs, using a machine roughly the size of an aircraft drinks cart that shines UV-C light from the ceiling to the floor. A video from the carrier shows an employee working their way down the aisle with the machine, which has arms that extend over the top of the seats and sweep across the cabin. According to Jetblue, the device is “capable of significantly reducing certain viruses and bacteria”. Honeywell Aerospace, the company behind the technology, says that the lighting can traverse the entire cabin in less than ten minutes, making it more time-efficient than fogging.

Qatar Airways has bought six Honeywell UV units, with plans to acquire more, so that they can be used on all aircraft turnarounds at its Doha hub. They will be used “as an additional step after manual disinfection, to ensure the very highest standards of cleanliness”, the carrier said.

Honeywell UV Cabin System on board a Qatar Airways aircraft

MIDDLE SEATS

As governments worldwide pushed for social distancing measures to curb the spread of the disease, a debate began to rage in the aviation industry about whether middle seats should be left empty. According to a survey by travel analytics and consulting firm Atmosphere Research, passengers are willing to pay 16 to 17 per cent more on average to fly on an airline that blocks the middle seat.

Delta has promised to keep middle seats empty until next year. Bill Lentsch, its chief customer experience officer, said in August: “We believe that taking care of our customers and employees and restoring confidence in the safety of air travel is more important right now than filling up every seat on a plane.”

Others, such as Qantas, have opposed such a move, saying it is ineffective and will raise the price of fares. “Social distancing on an aircraft isn’t practical the way it is on the ground, and, given the low transmission risk on board, we don’t believe it’s necessary in order to be safe. The extra measures we’re putting in place will reduce the risk even further,” said Qantas group medical director Ian Hosegood in May, citing the use of HEPA filters and face masks.

Qantas’s stance has been echoed by industry body IATA (the International Air Transport Association), which in May said it supported the wearing of face masks during a flight rather than “mandating” social distancing measures on board that would bring “dramatic cost increases” to air travel.

Some airlines, such as Cathay Pacific, are promising to create social distancing on aircraft only if passenger numbers allow it. Virgin Atlantic states on its website: “Where possible, depending on how busy your flight is, we’ll try and leave empty seats between travellers who are on separate bookings.”

In May, the European Commission issued recommendations for airlines in Europe for cautiously restarting travel. It emphasised the use of masks but did not say leaving middle seats empty was a requirement.

A number of major European carriers, such as British Airways, Air France and Ryanair, are not blocking middle seats. However, German budget carrier Eurowings is letting passengers pay extra to keep it free. In August, the Lufthansa subsidiary said it had been trialling the service and had sold more than 5,000 middle seats in this way without actively promoting the option. It formally launched the scheme in September on all Eurowings routes within Europe, saying that keeping the middle seat free would cost from €18 per flight.

The revamped Emirates Onboard Lounge service

IN-FLIGHT SERVICE

Many airlines have scaled down their meal service to minimise touch and interaction between passengers and crew. Some have removed menus and are serving pre-packaged food only. On short-haul flights, carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Virgin Australia are serving snacks only, in line with the International Civil Aviation Organisation’s recommendations to either limit or discontinue food and drink services on short-haul flights or offer packaged food in sealed or pre-packaged containers.

Hot meals are still offered on most major airlines on long-haul routes, but services have been adapted to limit contact. Qatar Airways brings out business class meals covered on a tray, similar to the way they are usually served to economy class flyers, instead of offering its usual multiple-course service, with cutlery also wrapped. It has also introduced single-use menu cards in business class. Meals and cutlery in economy class are sealed, and menus are not being provided.

Carriers have also removed magazines and other literature from seatback pockets, instead encouraging the use of digital options.

HYGIENE KITS

The Covid-19 crisis could lead to a new norm in flying: giving passengers cleaning or hygiene supplies on board. A number of carriers are dishing out “hygiene kits”, a bit like amenity kits but with face masks, hand sanitiser and sometimes gloves instead of skincare products, toothbrushes and socks. Delta rolled out such a kit in June, and many have followed suit. Cathay Pacific provides a “Cathay Care Kit” comprising a face covering and antiseptic wipes, while Malaysia Airlines’ kit contains hand sanitiser, a non-surgical face mask and sanitary wipes, packed in a sealed zip-lock pouch designed “for passengers to comfortably keep in their pockets”.

Etihad Airways has introduced “wellness kits” that include a face mask, gloves and hand sanitiser, while first and business class passengers get reusable snood-style face masks that have been treated with “a broad-spectrum antimicrobial treatment, laboratory tested and proven to reduce the presence of germs in fabrics”.

Qatar Airways, in addition to providing care kits, is giving economy passengers face shields as an extra protective measure. Passengers travelling in economy must now wear both a mask and shield “at all times” (apart from when eating and drinking), including when boarding and disembarking. Business and first class passengers are exempt.

Etihad's new antimicrobial snood style facemasks for premium passengers

COVID-19 COVER

A small but growing number of airlines have begun offering free cover for Covid-19-related expenses in a bid to boost confidence in travel. Emirates was the first, in July announcing that it would provide free global cover for Covid-19 health and quarantine expenses for passengers flying to any of its destinations. The airline said that travellers diagnosed with the disease during their travel within 31 days of taking their first flight would be covered for up to €150,000, including quarantine costs of up to €100 per day for 14 days. (The cover ends once the passenger has returned to the point of origin.)

Adam Li, Emirates’ vice-president for China, said the carrier had received positive feedback about the cover from travellers and the industry at large and that the airline had experienced an “uptake in demand for travel in July and August”. Etihad and Virgin Atlantic followed suit, promising to reimburse all passengers who contracted the disease on their trip for both medical and quarantine expenses.

Air Canada has introduced free Covid-19 emergency medical and quarantine insurance for all Canadian residents booking round-trip international flights until April 12, 2021, although the country’s government is currently advising against any non-essential travel outside of Canada.

Seher Asaf and Tom Otley

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