Sunday, September 26, 2021

How safe is it to fly in Coronavirus times?

by Jitendra Bhargava

“I haven’t taken a flight for 18 months” rues a frequent corporate traveller. “I haven’t met my parents in Mumbai for over a year,” bemoans a son working in Hyderabad. “I had to give my father’s cremation a miss because travelling to Delhi was too risky”, sadly reminisces a daughter in Bengaluru.

These are just some instances of how people have avoided air travel – either willingly or due Corona-induced restrictions, impacting passengers who would have otherwise taken a flight.

Almost 16 months after Corona began infecting people, upsetting normal lives, aircraft are flying with poor occupancies even as airlines have drastically curtailed number of flights. The number of passengers travelling every day plummeted to less than 1,00,000 in May, 2021. What appeared, only a few weeks earlier, as a gradual recovery since the resumption of domestic flights in May 2020, following two months of grounding, was dealt a big blow when the second wave emerged much more ferociously in early April resulting in many more people getting infected and some amongst them losing their lives.

The fear was palpable as the unfortunate events of April-May, 2021 in major cities all over the country affected the psyche of people left wondering must I travel, must I take the risk, mustn’t I skip the official meeting, the wedding in the family, death of a loved one, etc?

Airlines impacted globally
The phenomenon wasn’t just restricted to India. Total demand for air travel in April 2021 globally was down 65.4% compared to April 2019 (comparison with last year not being done due to the extraordinary impact of COVID-19 in 2020).
International passenger demand in April was 87.3% below April 2019 due most countries, including India, imposing restrictions on international flights. The scenario on domestic flights was relatively better. Total domestic demand worldwide was down 25.7% versus pre-crisis levels (April 2019). Recoveries in domestic markets globally depended on the pace of vaccination and control of new COVID-19 waves. As a result of the rapid vaccine rollout, US domestic travel demand expects a full recovery by the end of this year or early 2022. Domestic traffic in Australia has likewise rebounded with the support of leisure travel. On the other hand, domestic traffic in India and Brazil continued to deteriorate amid a surge in new COVID- 19 cases with new variants and imposition of new restrictions.

“The continuing strong recovery in domestic markets tells us that when people are given the freedom to fly, they take advantage of it. Unfortunately, that freedom still does not exist in most international markets. When it does, I’m confident we will see a similar resurgence in demand,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.

The unfortunate part is that even as passengers stayed away due high Corona cases in various cities a feeling has grown amongst many whether flights too lead to infection. It does not! How does one overcome this fear? This is a challenge confronting the aviation industry. Attractive fares can’t just be the mantra to make people pack their bags and rush to the airports to take a flight.

Air travel is safe?

Most people are under the impression that since they have to sit with other passengers in an air conditioned environment chances of their getting infected are more. This is particularly because the government has restricted the number of people who can attend functions in air conditioned banquet halls to 50 to avoid spread of virus.

“It makes no sense to allow flights with almost 3-4 times the number restricted for weddings, meetings and social functions”, argues a hotelier economically affected by the restrictions? Shopping malls and cinema multiplex owners echo the same thought.

It is a legitimate fear in the absence of knowledge regarding the air circulation system in aircraft besides the fact that the aviation industry, unlike other industries, is more regulated and norms fixed by experts are mandatorily implemented by all players – be it the airports or the airlines.

The most convincing evidence lies in the fact that millions of flights globally have been operated since the COVID-19 outbreak but have resulted in only a few confirmed cases of transmission in-flight. Many will disagree unless convinced with facts.

Here are some of them:

Seating position – On a flight passengers are seated facing forward rather than facing another person thus minimising chance of a passenger breathing in someone else’s expelled breath.

Seat backs – High seatbacks acting as a solid barrier to COVID-19.

High airflow rate – Ceiling to floor airflow in an aircraft is less conductive to droplet spread than other similar environments or modes of transport.

Air exchange – Aircraft deliver high airflow and replacement rates, combined with hospital-grade High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters that are 99.9+% effective at removing viruses, bacteria and fungi. Cabin air is exchanged every 2-3 minutes.

Unlike other modes of transport, auditoriums, cinema multiplexes, shopping malls, the aircraft cabin environment makes the transmission of viruses difficult and thus low occurrence of transmission have been seen on flights.

“The universal implementation of global standards has made aviation safe. A similar approach is critical in this crisis so that we can safely restore air connectivity as borders and economies re-open. The Takeoff guidance document was built with the best expertise of government and industry. Airlines strongly support it, said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s former Director General and CEO.

Takeoff proposed a phased approach to restarting aviation months ago and identified a set of generally applicable risk-based measures. In line with recommendations and guidance from public health authorities, these helped mitigate the risk of transmission of the COVID-19 virus during the travel process. Ministry of Civil Aviation in India had likewise issued a set of regulations when flights were resumed on 25 March 2020 in a calibrated manner.

What are these measures?

•    Physical distancing to the extent feasible and implementation of “adequate risk-based measures where distancing is not feasible, for example in aircraft cabins”;
•    Wearing of face coverings and masks by passengers and aviation workers;
•    Routine sanitation and disinfection of all areas with potential for human contact and transmission; 
•    Health screening, which could include pre-and post-flight self-declarations, as well as temperature screening and visual observation, “conducted by health professionals”; 
•    Contact tracing for passengers and aviation employees: updated contact information be requested as part of the health self-declaration. Use of electronic tools to avoid paper;
•    Testing: if and when real-time, rapid and reliable testing becomes available.

How credible are the claims?

There is no reason to disbelieve considering that claims made by the airlines are duly backed by independent researchers.

Research by the US Transportation Command (Transcom), Department of Defense, showed that aerosol particles were “rapidly diluted by the high air exchange rates” of a typical aircraft cabin. Aerosol particles remained detectable for a period of less than six minutes on average. Both aircraft models (B777 and B767) tested removed particulate matter 15 times faster than a typical home ventilation system and 5-6 times faster “than the recommended design specifications for modern hospital operating or patient isolation rooms.”
Mannequins with and without face masks sat in various seats on the aircraft while fluorescent tracer particles were released at intervals of two seconds to simulate breathing for a minute during ground and in-flight tests. Real-time fluorescent particle sensors were placed throughout the aircraft at the breathing zone of passengers to measure concentration over time.
As the number of cases dip to low levels in various cities, restrictions are consequently removed/relaxed by state governments, more and more people get vaccinated, let us contribute our bit in restoring normalcy – travel, as we were doing in pre-Covid times because chances of getting infected on a flight are remote!

About the author: Jitender Bhargava is a former executive director, Air India & author of ‘The Descent of Air India.

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