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.
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.
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 emphasised 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.
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.
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