COVID-19 crippled commercial aviation, mangling it into a train wreck. A collective loss of $460 billion and the cotton balling of 14,500 mainline airliners that were leaving only a third of that in the air and no relief in sight makes a nonsense of the figures flung by various entities. The cruel fact is that the way back into the air is like clawing up Everest without oxygen.
Airlines would love to rush their fleets into climb power mode but the bleak passenger uplift and the as yet visible nervousness of the global traveler to strap himself in the tube and leave the surly bonds of earth puts paid to all grandiose schemes to lure people back into seats.
It is a crisis of confidence, not so much in the airline but in the fear of leaving familiar territory and embarking into the unknown. Over the past month the aviation industry — from carriers, to aircraft manufacturers, to airports — has stepped up its campaign to address safety concerns about the spread of coronavirus as it looks to recover from the worst crisis in its 100-year history. “
All the data we can look at tells us that aero planes are less of a risk than any equivalent public place [such as] bus, train, restaurant or a workplace,” as per medical advisory group at IATA , the airline global trade body. But they have admitted the sector faced a “widespread perception that airliners are a dangerous place”.
Widespread perception is a gentle understatement for a global mindset that cannot wrap this fact around its head.
Ironically, the very technology that has fast tracked aviation in these past sixty odd years is now rising its bid to be a replacement. Between instant communications and real time audio-visual togetherness, the need to meet and greet is now becoming a comfortable option as a working tool.
As people are exposed at all levels to this method of functioning and initial clumsiness renders way to a comfort zone and that also detracts from taking a flight to Singapore or anywhere else.
The current cloud of fear stems from aircraft being confined spaces where people, sometimes from different countries, are close to each other for long periods, all factors that increase the danger of catching coronavirus, according to scientific studies. An industry-commissioned survey of 4,700 air travelers highlighted this concern. According to IATA , 65 per cent of those interviewed said their biggest concern was sitting next to someone who might be infected. About 42 per cent listed using the toilet, while 37 per cent said they were worried about breathing the air in the plane. But experts point out that the distinctive features of aircraft ventilation systems could reduce the hazards. The “replacement rate” — the number of times a volume of air equivalent to the volume of the cabin is removed each hour — is very brisk. While this does not mean every gas molecule in the environment is removed every few minutes, the airflow it creates potentially reduces significantly the risk of exposure to high virus concentrations over long periods.
It can be favourably compared to the purity of air in an operating theatre where surgery is performed in sterile conditions.
Another crucial factor is that air recirculated through the aircraft cabin goes through air-conditioning systems with far more sophisticated and effective filters than those generally found in indoor venues on the ground. These filters have been found in previous studies to remove almost all particles of the typical size of the coronavirus.
Keeping these factors in mind both Airbus and Boeing have advised customers who remain worried about sitting in confined spaces that things are nowhere so dangerous.
The wearing of masks inflight reduces the risk even further.
Other sensible precautions include calling on airlines to keep the ventilation system running when passengers are boarding and disembarking, a practice not widespread before COVID-19. Other factors could also lessen virus transmission. Seat-backs help block the path of respiratory droplets exhaled through mouths and noses. Passengers also tend to stay in their seats and not spend long periods in different parts of the cabin, reducing the risk that they will spread the pathogen to multiple groups of people. Some airlines have said passengers will need to ask permission to use the toilet. Many have cut food and drink to limit interaction between crew and passengers.
The ray of hope lies in the fact that so far there has been little evidence of in-flight transmission of coronavirus. A flight from the US to Taiwan in March, where 12 people were later confirmed to have been symptomatic at the time of flight, generated no secondary confirmed cases among the 328 other passengers and crew members. This speaks for itself and underscores the probability of containment inflight.
In a survey of 18 airlines, IATA found that in January to March there were just four episodes of suspected in-flight transmission of COVID-19, all from passenger to crew, and a further four episodes of apparent transmission from pilot to pilot.
A more in-depth survey of four carriers indicates no requirement by aviation authorities to make social distancing mandatory on board. Airlines have introduced other safety measures, such as mandatory face masks for passengers and crew, enhanced cabin cleaning and changing boarding and in-flight processes to reduce interpersonal contact.
Aircraft manufacturers are actively also investigating other ways to improve safety. Boeing is looking at new materials such as antimicrobial coatings or surfaces that would kill any virus that lands on them. It is also developing a portable ultraviolet disinfector that said could be available “in a year or so”. Designed as a backpack with a handheld UV wand, airline staff could wave the light over the area to be disinfected and any virus would be killed “in seconds”. A consultant virologist at NHS, said that because of the effectiveness of the aircraft’s ventilation system, the risk really came from how close people are when they are talking to cabin crew or to each other. He said there were small things passengers could do to limit their exposure. “If I had to fly, I’d go on with a mask and I’d try and eat when no one else is eating. Things like that can help stagger the risk a bit,”. Compared with the same period last year, the decline was a record 18.9 per cent, according to preliminary data from the state statistics office.
Things are not good. We know that. And the key is with the passenger and his mindset. Now what is needed is a concerted PR exercise designed to exorcise the fear and create the right environment for us to once again dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings.