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Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Air travel in India and the US: What has changed?

As thousands gather in airports and hundreds cluster on board flights, guidelines have been altered in an attempt to contain the spread of the disease while allowing people to migrate.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: May 28, 2020 7:42:45 am
Air travel in India and the US: What has changed? A worker wearing a protective mask reads the New York Post in Terminal 8 at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) in New York, U.S., on Thursday, April 9, 2020. (Bloomberg: Angus Mordant)

Air travel is one aspect that has changed due to the coronavirus pandemic. As thousands gather in airports and hundreds cluster on board flights, guidelines have been altered in an attempt to contain the spread of the disease while allowing people to migrate.

Air travel was possibly the biggest mode of transmission for Covid-19, which originated in China’s Wuhan and spread across the globe within three months. Take New York or Mumbai, for instance. These cities were hit hard as they host some of the busiest international airports.

However, while some countries shut down air services, others continued to operate despite the risks. India stopped air travel on March 25 and partially reopened the domestic aviation sector two months later on May 25. The US, which never fully halted operations, left it to airlines to impose norms or follow local restrictions, while only issuing some advisories.

While India is yet to allow international flights to operate, the US has, so far, banned travellers from few countries, including Iran, China, the European Schengen Area, the UK, Ireland and Brazil.

Further, the Indian government left it to states to decide quarantine guidelines for travellers landing at their airports. In the US, on the other hand, there are no norms except for international passengers, who are expected to voluntarily stay at home for 14 days and monitor their own health.

Guidelines at airports

In India, the Centre made thermal screening mandatory for all passengers, restricted the number of bags each traveller could carry, stopped manual check-ins (read: only web check-in allowed), and made face masks and social distancing compulsory. India also mandated the use of the Aarogya Setu mobile application to help contact tracing.

In the US, passengers now scan their own boarding passes instead of handing it to an official. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officials are mandated to wear masks on the job and encourage passengers to do the same.

The US Centres of Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) has advised passengers to maintain six feet distance between themselves, wear a cloth face mask in public and cover coughs and sneezes.

Guidelines inside the aircraft

At Indian airports, some seats in the waiting area have been blocked to maintain social distancing between fliers. Food, newspapers and magazines are disallowed, but passengers are allowed to carry dry food items themselves. Safety kits are given to each traveller with a mask, face shield and hand sanitizer. The Centre has asked passengers to restrict the use of the lavatory to a minimum and avoid non-essential movement in the aisles.

In the US, TSA has asked travelers to bring their food in clear plastic bags. Now, mobile phones, keys, belts and wallets are put in carry-on bags to “reduce touch-points during the screening process”.

There are no guidelines for social distancing on flights. However, in this regard, CDC warned, “… social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and you may have to sit near others (within 6 feet), sometimes for hours. This may increase your risk for exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.”

According to the CDC, most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on aircraft because of the air circulation and filteration. Its advisory states: “Although the risk of infection on an airplane is low, try to avoid contact with sick passengers, avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands, and wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.”

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Private US airlines have taken their own measures as well. Delta Air Lines is ensuring the capacity of its aircraft is 60 per cent. United Airlines is not going above 70 per cent capacity. Several airlines are mandating masks onboard too.

Air travel in India and the US: What has changed? Outside Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International airport. Air services resumed in India on May 25. (Express Photo: Tashi Tobgyal)

Post flight guidelines

Upon landing, passengers in Indian airplanes are to exit in an orderly manner. Baggage is placed on the arrival carousel in a staggered manner to avoid crowding. Only authorised taxis are allowed to ferry passengers to their destinations.

CDC guidelines for US travellers

Without differentiating modes of transport, the CDC has issued the following guidelines for travellers at airports, bus stations, train stations and rest stops:

* Is COVID-19 spreading where you’re going? You can get infected while traveling.

* Is COVID-19 spreading in your community? Even if you don’t have symptoms, you can spread COVID-19 to others while traveling.

* Will you or those you are traveling with be within 6 feet of others during or after your trip? Being within 6 feet of others increases your chances of getting infected and infecting others.

* Are you or those you are traveling with more likely to get very ill from COVID-19? Older adults and people of any age who have a serious underlying medical condition are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

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* Do you live with someone who is more likely to get very ill from COVID-19? If you get infected while traveling you can spread COVID-19 to loved ones when you return, even if you don’t have symptoms.

* Does the state or local government where you live or at your destination require you to stay home for 14 days after traveling? Some state and local governments may require people who have recently traveled to stay home for 14 days.

* If you get sick with COVID-19, will you have to miss work or school? People with COVID-19 disease need to stay home until they are no longer considered infectious.

Passengers wearing masks and face shields exit the Pune airport. (Express Photo: Arul Horizon)

The WHO on the risk of transmission in an airplane

The World Health Organization (WHO) maintains there is “little risk” of any communicable disease spreading on board an aircraft since the quality of air is controlled and ventilation provides a total change of air 20-30 times per hour. The recirculated air is passed through high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA), which traps dust particles, bacteria, fungi and viruses.

Even so, the WHO says transmission can occur between passengers seated in the same area of the aircraft, “usually as a result of the infected individual coughing or sneezing or by touch (direct contact or surfaces that other passengers touch). This is no different from any other situation in which people are close to each other, such as on a train or bus or in a theatre.”

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