Travel & COVID: What to do about Flying?

So is it safe to Fly?

This blog post is tagged with:

Flying Flights COVID19 Flight Safety

Are you confident with the measures being put in place?

Do you have your own strategy for flying?

The sun is shining, the barbecues are being dusted off and the press have rejoiced in the fact that borders are opening and that you will be able to have that Spanish holiday!

Whoa! Let’s put the brakes on this now!

Yes, some borders are opening, but gaining access to your favourite Spanish or Greek hotel is not going to be that straight-forward!

Greece has declared that they will test on entry and if negative, you will still have to isolate for 7 days; 14 if you test positive!

Spain has declared that they are testing entry with foreign nationals coming from countries that have the same health equivalence or COVID health model as they do; the UK is not currently invited!

The UK has declared a quarantine for 14 days, whether your a visitor or a returning holidaymaker!

So, getting to your favourite hotspots is not going to be that easy.

However, Europe’s airlines would have you believe that this is not the case because they are ready to fly whatever the situation. In recent days we have seen the Ryanair and easyJet videos of the measures they are taking and I’ve noted that there’s a difference in the approaches. Airbus did a live broadcast the other day to tell us how safe flying is, with some protective measures, and because of the air conditioning technology deployed within their types of aircraft.

So it’s back to normal is it?

About 2 weeks ago, I was asked and subsequently invited to attend a meeting as a Passenger Stakeholder in the UK’s Department of Transport sponsored Aviation Health Panel.

I duly received my invitation e mail, along with my log in details and several documents, that we were invited to consider ahead of the meeting. Now I had a meeting clash, so I decided to invest time over the bank holiday weekend to examine the documentation and submit my comments in writing. Several days later my meeting clash resolved itself and I advised that I would be attending.

About 2 hours before the meeting, I received a message questioning my invitation; I duly produced the invitation.

I was then advised that my expertise didn’t fit the content of the meeting as it was principally about the air conditioning system of the aircraft. I responded by pointing out that I represented the UK in the creation of a European Standard that would improve Cabin Air Quality; I therefore understood the air conditioning system on an aircraft.

Despite all this, I was disinvited with a promise that I would be updated by telephone; I am still waiting, and waiting for the call from the Department of Transport, as I believe that they are creating a Consumer Charter for air passengers & COVID!

Into this mix, there is the complication of that UK quarantine I talked about. Much froth; much lobbying, applying pressure on a government that seems incapable in creating a coherent strategy. The quarantine is watered down so much that I doubt its effectiveness. But that is not to say that the quarantine should not be introduced, along with a package of measures, such as isolating on arrival, questioning, testing, followed up by a robust quarantine as in Hong Kong or shortly in Greece! We now hear that one major airline is considering taking the UK government to court to stop the quarantine, but there is a flip-side to the coin. The argument seems to be that we are not at risk from those coming in (but we are presumably to ourselves because we are behind the curve) and whilst that may have some merit there are other considerations perhaps other countries will consider. EASA (the European Aviation Safety Agency) has issued a document detailing ‘high risk’ countries. There are a few through Europe, but the biggest ‘high risk’ country is the UK. This document is warning receiving countries of that risk and all of the UK’s airports are listed. That then suggests that we should not be surprised if we are not invited to join “Travel Bubbles” just yet, but we should also not be surprised if other countries are tougher on us when we arrive on their shores. Secondly, other countries will look at this information and could advise their citizens NOT to visit the UK - that’s the flip side and the airline who may sue may get their pound of flesh, but they may be faced with the reality of restrictions from elsewhere!

So, that’s the background to your summer holiday and one that I and many Campaigners had predicted.

In my opinion, when it comes to flying, we have to pay particular attention to “the science”, yes, it’s that phrase again and I think that’s important when it comes to aircraft and airports.

So the current debate as I have seen it talks about “isolation rooms” or ‘safe’ areas at airports; which as I understand it has been rejected.

There is talk of masks, hand gels and screens at airports but not so much on social distancing.

Airport staff will receive PPE kit but passengers appear to be limited to masks.

The Ryanair video talks of the measures it is putting in place; disinfection, no queuing for the toilet, masks and covered drinks. But interestingly, the video shows the passenger wearing protective gloves but the cabin crew member is not.

I have seen an e mail from a senior member from a UK airline who has dismissed the wearing of gloves as not proven to be effective but didn’t produce the study they were relying on. Interesting when you consider that shop assistants, petrol stations and medical staff either wear or are required or you’re recommended to wear gloves, presumably to prevent the spread of germs or exposure to chemicals on your skin?

On social distancing, European airlines are it seems reluctant, for example leaving the middle seat free or distancing between rows, as was seen on 22 April 2020 when Mr O’Leary from Ryanair stated that he would not fly if “idiotic” rules were put into place. It wasn’t that long ago when he was predicting that we would be returning to the skies for our Easter holidays - that prediction hasn’t stood well over time, has it?

There are some within the Industry who brazenly and perhaps quietly claim that there is no proof that people have been infected when flying; this doesn’t quite sit with some earlier evidence in this crisis, referenced back to the WHO, that an infected person can infect others up to two rows around them and even further!

So as the Department for Transport considers “the Science”, maybe they’d like to consider:

  1. The study carried out on a cruise ship, showing that the numbers of those infected within the confines of a ship, was high. Another scientific study referred to the “confined settings” of a cruise ship and how infection can spread more quickly than say in a community setting. By its very design, the aircraft is a confined space or setting, and being contained for several hours without effective measures surely increases the risk of cross-infection, but I see no evidence that the airline industry is subscribing to that simple fact?
  1. Then there is the question of how long a virus will stay on surfaces. One study suggests that it can remain on plastics (aircraft interiors are mainly plastic) for up to 72 hours (what about clothing which may have some plastics within?); the airlines are talking about disinfection every 24 hours, with they hope many flights & passengers in between, and they also hope that air droplets will fall to the ground because of the air conditioning systems on aircraft!
  1. The World Economic Forum provides a useful guide for passengers (US centric), but highlights the use of technical systems on aircraft to reduce infection, for example High Efficiency HEPA filters. Now whilst I would subscribe to that (and I’ve noted aviation bodies only talk of recommending the use of HEPA filters), I would suggest that the use of Carbon-Activated HEPA filters would be of greater benefit to reduce the potential risk of exposure to COVID19.

You can see I hope the theme developing here; a reluctance, a reticence; let’s just go down the light-touch regulation route!

Or is it a compulsion of the business model, where everything is centred on what they call ‘Shareholder Primacy’; the ultimate Corporatism? Should COVID19 tell the Aviation Industry and indeed Government that ‘Shareholder Primacy’ should be replaced by a ‘Stakeholder Corporatism’; wouldn’t that be a panacea to their relationships with Consumers; but I’ll leave that for another Podcast?

So whilst I am perhaps constructively critical of aviation’s response to this great difficulty they face, I have also made it known that I think the passenger should be an important part of the measures that need to be taken; they need to think partnership.

So, what do I recommend Passengers do if they intend to fly?

I think you should take the following personal actions, above what is required of you by State Authorities or the Airlines themselves:

  1. Be realistic about your health; don’t act on a desire to travel - act in what is in the best interests of you or your family. Keep alert to any changing health issues you may face and seek medical advices at the earliest possibility;
  1. Pack hand gel (on your journey, use repeatedly), bring disinfectant wipes (so that you can clean the soap dispenser at the airport or wipe down the side of the aircraft wall you are sitting next to, the seat back in front, its table, the arm rests and of course the seat belt) - make sure that you comply with liquid restrictions;
  1. Buy a mask, and make sure it is well fitted - important for your children as well;
  1. Buy a face visor (these are relatively cheap online), (make sure you wear it as you enter the airport, on your flight and beyond the flight destination - remove when requested for security purposes or in critical safety scenarios);
  1. Buy disposable gloves (bring plenty with you, make sure you wear them at all times except to wash your hands or when requested to remove them for security or flight critical scenarios);
  1. Buy disposable arm sleeves (these will protect immediate clothing and skin not covered by gloves from any potentially infected surfaces or accidental touching of another);
  1. Think about toileting before you board your flight, difficult with long flights and children, but follow the cabin crew/airline instructions taking care to bring your cleaning wipes with you!

These simple personal measures not only demonstrate that you are a responsible passenger but places you at the heart of the measures that should be taken. There is little that we can do about social-distancing onboard at this time, that is in the remit of the airlines and indeed governments themselves.

I really wished the Aviation Industry and the UK government were a little less closed shop - who knows, they might actually benefit from a non-aviation-establishment outlook!

(This is the script from Frank's CreatingRipples™ Podcast: Travel & COVID: What to do about Flying? You can listen to Frank's podcast here).