Corona protection measures Aviation - Airport

Prevention in the Corona Pandemic – New protection standards in aviation

Reiner Hertl
01.06.2020
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5 minutes

Both in the airport and aboard the aircraft – comprehensive measures are being taken against potential infection. The preventive measures demand the cooperation of everyone involved: passengers, flight crew, ground staff and airlines. Given the current dynamics of the situation, we would like to give a brief outline of the various approaches. For the overall picture, for comparison and for safety.

Decreasing passenger/crew density

The new protective rules take effect even before departure. At airports, a minimum distance of 1.5 metres between persons must be maintained: at terminals and gangways, at seating areas and counters, at baggage carousels and queues. With this regulatory arrangement, however, the airports’ infrastructure at present cannot accommodate the previous volume of travellers and operate at its previous capacity.

Fast-track Corona virus tests and medical examinations

Rapid Corona virus tests (as, for example, those due to start in June at Keflavik airport in Iceland), will probably not be mandatory at Germany’s airports. Neither will antibody tests. And if the health authorities do order fast-track testing, this would have to be carried out by the authorities, explains Ivo Rzegotta, spokesman for the Federal Association of the German Aviation Industry.

The instructions released by the industry’s association ADV, the Association of German Airports on 19 May, do not provide for medical checks at German airports for the time being. Citing specialist studies, the association states that thermographic cameras or taking temperature are not suitable for identifying carriers of the Corona virus.

This is also the conclusion of a recent study by the US health authority CDC. After taking temperature measurements at US airports in February, it now estimates them to be of only “limited use”: Passengers could spread the virus even if they themselves did not have a raised body temperature.

Corona Pandemic - Airport
Image by Gerald Friedrich on Pixabay

Masks mandatory, yes, vacant middle seats less likely

Should protective measures against COVID-19 be implemented on the basis of voluntary commitment declarations by the respective industries, or are government regulations and restrictions imposed in each case? A strategy plan was drafted at the beginning of May in collaboration with the transport industry. In Germany, the catalogue of measures against the Corona virus demands protective face masks for all travellers – but not the compulsory blocking of adjacent seats in rows of seats in public transport. Until recently, this approach was still viable in airplanes, as passenger numbers were negligible during the last few months.

The empty seat and the window seat

On board an aircraft, a passenger in an aisle seat comes into close contact with 64 people on average. Window-seat passengers have significantly less contacts, with around 12 people. This was shown by a study carried out in 2018 at the Emory University before the Corona pandemic.

Maintaining distance has a protective effect, especially in confined spaces such as on board an aircraft. Keeping distance on an aeroplane – which would mean keeping every second seat vacant – would, however, also be enormously expensive. It would throw all calculations overboard if only 120 seats were occupied on every 180-seater airplane with rows of three adjacent seats. In regional aircraft with four seats per row, it would amount only to half that number. Michael O’Leary, CEO of the Irish airline Ryan Air, already described the practice of seat-blocking in April this year as “idiotic”. He then went on to say: “We cannot make any money with a seat load factor of 66 percent”.

Aviointeriors came up with a completely different proposal: In a row of three seats, the middle seat could be turned to face the opposite direction. Plexiglass screens separate and isolate the seats from each other. The study on protective plexiglass screens was named “Glassafe”; the rear-facing middle seat was aptly termed “Janus”.*

Safety distances and social distancing

The question of distance, a safety factor during the Corona crisis – but also a major cost factor. Fundamentally, and especially now, at a time when some in the aviation industry are already wobbling or on their knees. And it remains unclear which economic scenarios will actually come to pass. “V”-shaped, “U”-shaped or even “L”-shaped?**

Distance regulations in aircraft would “fundamentally change the economics of aviation”, explained the IATA, the International Air Transport Association. And the organization speaks out against social distancing rules on board. In their new guidelines presented on 21 May, the EU Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) and the EU Disease Control Centre (ECDC) recommend that either one seat per row or every second row in the aircraft be left vacant – if the seat occupancy level permits this.

Besides these distancing rules, the EU also recommends medical protective masks for passengers and on-board personnel. And how clean is the air in the aircraft that you breathe in through the mask? The very pure mixture of outside air and recycled cabin air is renewed every two to three minutes:

High-performance particle filters in air-conditioning systems against Corona viruses

Protection is provided by filters in the air-conditioning systems of aircraft, which efficiently remove many particles. HEPA: High Efficiency Particulate Air. According to the BDL, “the collection efficiency of these filters (…) meets the standard of clinical operating theatre filters”.

In addition, the vertical airflow inside the plane pushes to the ground any bacteria and viruses that might be travelling with us on board unawares. Added to this is the dry air in the cabins, which makes it more difficult for viruses to spread. Research has shown that the “risk of transmission of communicable diseases on board an aircraft is very low,” as stated by the World Health Organization.

Surfaces as possible Corona contact surfaces

Overall, potential infection via frequently touched surfaces seems more probable than infection via the air: tables and touchscreens, armrests and seat pockets, controls and air vents, lockers, carpets. And the commonly frequented places like toilets and rest rooms. The galley.

Spraying, scrubbing, disinfection by wiping – increased cleaning standards

Photo: Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay

Still far from normal operation

More hand-washing, more hygiene duties. More control measures and restrictions. More effort. This is roughly what flying is going to look like in the next few months to come. As far as preventive measures at airports are concerned: The Airports Council International, the umbrella organization of airport operators, already initiated its “Off the Ground” project at the beginning of April. The aim: to specify new protection catalogues and provide airports with guidelines.

With a complex system of safety and precautionary measures, air traffic is slowly beginning to pick up again after easing of the travel restrictions. The speed at which travel can be resumed on this long route is determined by many factors. Also, in its role as an important economic sector, to renew itself. And many open questions. One of the big ones remains: How will the COVID-19 pandemic develop, and could there be a second wave of infection with a second lockdown?

No matter which regions, countries and continents are to be connected by travelling: protection against Corona brings new challenges and requires measures that are still unfamiliar. It will take some time until we arrive at a new normality of flying.

Corona pandemic - Aviation
Photo: Couleur on Pixabay

How to keep fit before, during and after the flight has already been explained in detail in our reports on the prevention of colds and thrombosis.

Title photo from Free-Photos on Pixabay

* “Janus” is a Roman god with two faces: The front head looks forward, the back head has another face and looks backwards (the “January” owes its name to this god).

** The “V” stands for an economic curve that rises just as steeply upwards again from the low point after the downturn. The “U” stands for a downturn which rises again more slowly from the low point. And the “L” stands for a downturn that stays at the bottom for a long time.

by Reiner Hertl

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