Author: Alexandre de Juniac, Director-General and CEO of the International Air Transport Association (IATA)
Trust. Over decades, airlines have earned the trust of travellers to deliver them safely to their destination. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, the question of trust now extends to personal health.
Surveys tell us that people are eager to get back to exploring the world, reconnecting with friends and family and visiting business partners to seal the next big deal. However, you will not do that unless you feel safe while traveling.
Over the past few weeks all stakeholders in aviation – the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), airlines, airports, manufacturers, governments and medical experts – have been working together to develop a plan for safe travel even as the challenges of COVID-19 remain. It has led to the ICAO ‘Take-off’ blueprint to restart the industry, which aligns with IATA’s own roadmap to get us up and running.
There is no silver bullet. Until a vaccine is found, there is nothing that is failsafe, but layers of measures — each reducing risk at each stage of the journey — can have the cumulative effect of significantly reducing risk.
The measures to protect your safety begin at the airport. The first thing we want to do is ensure that unwell people do not fly. We will continue to communicate that it is the personal responsibility of everyone to stay home if they have a fever and passengers will have their temperature checked at the airport as an extra measure. To keep numbers manageable, only passengers (and their caregivers if required) will be allowed into the airport.
Masks will become a feature of travel. Evidence tells us that COVID-19 can be spread by people who show no signs of the disease. Wearing a mask helps to prevent the spread of the disease by people who do not know that they are sick. You will see airline staff wearing them. You will be asked to as well — from the time you arrive at the airport until you reach your destination.
The next layer is speed and reduced contact. That means having passengers arrive at the airport ready to fly using online check-in and a home printed bag tag where possible. If not, then it is automated processes with kiosks for check-in and self-service boarding.
That’s not all. Airline staff will most likely be behind plexiglass barriers. There will be more deep cleaning everywhere but particularly for high-touch areas such as kiosks and security trays. Similarly, we are working on more efficient ways to queue and other measures so that safe distances can be maintained.
Our surveys show that the biggest concern is the person seated next to you. This is totally understandable. In fact, many expect that the “middle seat” needs to be kept empty so we can extend physical distancing on board. However, that will not generate the distance suggested by health officials which is usually one or two metres.
Instead, we are following the advice for situations where physical distancing is not possible, which is to wear a mask. On top of that, we are adding other layers of protection. We are re-thinking boarding and disembarking to get people seated or off the aircraft more efficiently. We are simplifying service on board to minimize the interaction with crew and we will ensure that people do not congregate around the washrooms.
People should also be aware of some other barriers to disease spread. Passengers generally face forward and do not move around that much. The seatback also acts as a barrier to stop respiratory droplets jumping rows.
Also, you might not realize that air is exchanged 20-30 times an hour with fresh air from outside the aircraft. That is about ten times more often than most modern office buildings and for the air that is recycled, it goes through High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters — the same ones that are used in hospital operating theatres.
I wish that I could say with absolute certainty that there is no risk of catching COVID-19 in the cabin. There is risk in every interaction we have with other people — when shopping, working, dining or flying. What I can say though, is that we have not seen that risk manifest in many cases of onboard transmission.
The main example is a flight from the UK to Vietnam early March that saw one symptomatic passenger potentially passing the virus to several others. However, there are also published studies of two recent flights between Asia and North America with known symptomatic passengers where no transmission was detected despite extensive contact tracing. Therefore, the risk of onboard transmission appears to be low and the measures that we have put in place will reduce it further.
Finally, it is important to know that these measures, hopefully, will be temporary. As science unlocks the secrets of vaccination, we will ease or lift what measures we can, in line with medical advice.
Trust is personal. You will need to make up your own mind if the reason for your next trip by air justifies what you perceive to be the risk. For me, the answer is yes. As the industry re-starts, I will be visiting stakeholders in many parts of the world and as summer approaches, I am planning to travel with the family. Both trips will involve planes. I know that the benefits of the travel will be big and I trust the measures we have in place to keep me, my colleagues and my family safe. I hope that you will come to the same conclusion.