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International flights explained: How is COVID-19 changing the way we fly?

India International flights resume: The Covid-19 crisis, of which the aviation sector has been one of the biggest victims in terms of business impact, could change passenger experience. We tell you how.

Written by Pranav Mukul , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: June 19, 2020 8:21:58 pm
International flights explained, India flights, India flights resumed, International flights guidelines Facilities at the Mumbai International Airport have been modified to ensure minimum contact with passengers. (Express Photo: Ganesh Shirsekar)

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said on Tuesday (June 16) that the government will “commence the process of resuming international passenger flights from India” next month, if the novel coronavirus behaved in a predictable manner, and all stakeholders came on board with the plan. This process will include assessment of health safety level in various countries in addition to pitching India’s position, so other countries would accept travellers from India, he said.

But the way we fly could be altered, at least over the conceivable future.

The 9/11 terror attacks in the United States brought in sweeping changes to aviation security, and consequently changed an air traveller’s experience — among the new normals that followed, for example, were the limits on carrying liquid more than 100 ml, blocking access to visitors outside the airport, and locking the cockpit for the entire duration of a flight.

The Covid-19 crisis, of which the aviation sector has been one of the biggest victims in terms of business impact, could have a similar impact on passenger experience.

Airlines and regulators are bringing in measures such as protective gowns for middle-seat passengers, mandatory temperature checks at airports, going through disinfection booths, minimal touch points, as the industry tries to land on its feet after the upheaval. And several experts believe that while these measures could in part be knee-jerk measures to cajole the traveller who airlines feel has developed a fear of flying, they could in fact stay on, at least until a vaccine is made available to the vast majority of the world’s people.

Is flying a threat to health safety?

The spread of earliest known global pandemics such as the Black Death in the 14th century and the Spanish Flu in the early 20th century has been attributed to overseas travel. While the Black Death was said to be carried across the globe by merchant ships, the global outbreak of Spanish Flu was powered by increased travel and modern transportation systems, as well as troop movements during World War I.

The first time air travel was blamed for the spread of disease was between 2002 and 2004 at the time of the SARS outbreak in China and southeast Asia.

In end-May, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had said in its Covid-19 guidelines: “…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.”

However, the CDC had also noted that “most viruses and other germs” did not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes. Airlines and aircraft manufacturers have repeatedly highlighted the use of HEPA filters and the manner of air circulation inside an aircraft to suggest that the virus cannot transmit during a flight as long as passengers are mindful of dangers and act responsibly.

Even so, stakeholders, especially governments will be wary of opening up air travel completely until such time as the curve is flattened. According to a Reuters report, New Zealand, which was on a 24-day streak of no new coronavirus infections, recorded two new cases — both of whom flew in from the UK via Doha and Brisbane on June 7. A report by the Associated Press said that on Wednesday (June 17), more than 60% of commercial flights out of Beijing were cancelled as the Chinese capital raised the alert level amid a new coronavirus outbreak. The city raised its threat level from 3 to 2, leading to the cancellation of classes and suspension of plans for opening up, and tightened the requirements for social distancing.

International flights explained, India flights, India flights resumed, International flights guidelines At the Mumbai International Airport during the COVID-19 lockdown. (Express Photo: Ganesh Shirsekar)

What measures are being taken globally by aviation stakeholders?

European low-cost carrier Ryanair, which plans to resume 40 per cent of its regular service on July 1, plans to prohibit “queuing for toilets” during flights, although “toilet access will be made available to individual passengers upon request.”

Delta Air Lines expects passengers to use sanitising check-in kiosks and counters, baggage stations and security station bins at airports, and is disinfecting gate areas, jet bridges and employee areas.

One policy widely required by airlines is the use of masks or facial coverings by passengers and staff. Airlines such as Qatar Airways, Philippines Airlines and AirAsia have flight attendants wearing hazmat suits.

US carriers such as American, United and Southwest Airlines have enhanced their aircraft cleaning programmes, with airlines underlining the use of HEPA filters that extract virtually all microbes and viruses from cabin air. It is unclear if these filters can fully protect travellers from the coronavirus, though.

Delta is, according to a Reuters report, sanitising aircraft lavatories, overhead bin handles, tray tables and seat-back screens before every flight, alongside temporarily blocking middle seats, cutting back food and beverage offerings, and changing HEPA filters twice as often as recommended by the manufacturer.

Air France and Singapore Airlines, among others, are performing temperature checks of passengers, in addition to what the airport is doing. Etihad is reported to be carrying our a trial with volunteers at Abu Dhabi International Airport of a contactless, self-service kiosk to measure temperature, heart and respiratory rate.

Seoul’s Incheon International Airport disinfects its halls and does fever checks in multiple locations. London Heathrow is trying out a thermal screening technology to detect arriving passengers’ elevated temperatures, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport is reported to be working on plans to deploy employees to test a screener that combines an infrared camera and artificial intelligence to read their temperature while the Vienna airport is offering a coronavirus test, at $210 to both arriving and departing passengers.

Some are stricter than others.

United Airlines has said it will strengthen mandatory mask policies by placing passengers who fail to comply on an internal travel restriction list. Customers on this list will end up losing their flying privileges on United for a duration of time to be determined pending an incident review. The mandatory mask policy is expected to remain in place for at least the next 60 days.

International flights explained, India flights, India flights resumed, International flights guidelines Temperature screening of passengers at the Maharaja Bir Bikram Airport in Agartala. (Express Photo: Abhisek Saha)

Does keeping the middle-seat empty help?

Some carriers, including those in the US and Europe, are leaving middle seats on flights empty for the time being to enforce social distancing, and to bring back confidence, despite the regulators not specifically requiring them to do so. In India, the aviation regulator DGCA asked carriers to try to keep middle seats on flights vacant and provide “wrap-around gowns” to passengers who are allowed such seats.

A week into domestic air services in India resuming May 25 after a two-month break, airlines were asked to provide passengers with, alongside a safety kit with a three-layered surgical mask, face-shield and sachets of sanitiser prior to boarding, additional protective equipment like “wrap-around gown” (Ministry of Textiles-approved standards) to individuals occupying the intervening seat.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade group for the global airline industry, laid out what it called a “road map” for restarting aviation in April, where it recommended “layered” measures that would be “globally implemented and mutually recognised by governments.”

These included preflight passenger contact tracing; temperature screening as travellers arrived at airports; use of masks by passengers; masks and personal protective equipment for airline and airport staff; self-service, touchless options for check-in and baggage drop-off; and electronically processed customs procedures.

The proposal of blocking off airplanes’ middle seats was rejected on the grounds that the “risk of transmission of Covid-19 from one passenger to another passenger on board is very low.”

What else can change fundamentally in terms of passenger experience?

To begin with, aviation and healthcare experts see an added layer of mandatory checks at airports beyond the usual security procedures. These will include temperature checks, swab tests (which are currently practised at a number of European and southeast Asian airports for flights originating from certain countries), disinfection processes for passengers as well as their baggage, submission of self-declarations, among several other steps.

These are expected to cause an increase in time spent at the airports prior to boarding a flight. Additionally, a process of reducing human contact at airports, which was already being used by low-cost airlines globally to cut down on costs is expected to accelerate, with airlines adopting more technological solutions for purposes including checking in, baggage drop, boarding, etc.

Aerospace technology companies SITA and Collins Aerospace are already offering touchless initiatives for airports that use biometric facial recognition and mobile technologies for check-in, baggage drop-off, security screening and boarding.

Ramping up of health safety infrastructure at airports, repeated sanitisation of aircraft, additional protective equipment for flight and ground crews will add to the expenses of airlines and airports, which are already reeling under high fixed costs. As a consequence of this, flying may become more expensive, given that these stakeholders will pass on the additional costs to the customer.

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