March 15, 2021 5:12:29 pm
On March 5, 2021, Justice C Hari Shankar of the Delhi High Court travelled from Kolkata to Delhi by air. He was alarmed by the situation that confronted him. He found “many passengers… exhibiting a stubborn reluctance to wear their masks properly”. Within one week of the Hon’ble judge’s comments, the DGCA (Director General of Civil Aviation) issued strict guidelines governing the wearing of masks on flights.
The DGCA did no such thing when I complained in November that my wife and I had contracted COVID on a flight between Delhi and Goa. I complained that air hostesses, as well as passengers, were lax in implementing guidelines mandated by the DGCA itself, as well as by the Supreme Court, as a pre-condition for the easing of COVID restrictions for flights. It seems, however, that bodies like DGCA respect and respond to the stick, and not concern for citizens. At 71, I had spent the better part of 2020 dodging COVID successfully. For this ill-fated flight, we had inserted Betadine in our nasal cavities just before boarding and wore double masks and face shields. But such protections become meaningless when other passengers are talking without masks, while their maskless children, who scream for more food, eat throughout the journey. The airline joins in by delaying the flight by more than an hour and a half after boarding, feeding passengers for over an hour out of a two-hour flight, and presiding over a free-for-all, mask-less journey. I complained to the two air hostesses, but both pleaded helplessness. I called out to the pilot who was busy talking to a friend in the front row as we waited for passengers from a London flight to join us. “Since when does a flight get delayed for an hour and a half because of a few passengers?” I asked him. He shrugged his shoulders disinterestedly. “Ask the management. It’s their decision. I’m only an employee”.
This carelessness cuts across airlines as well as the various airport authorities. The security check is the first area of confusion. This “no man’s land” is where multiple authorities operate but no one is responsible. This is also the area in which crowding happens with passengers struggling to get ahead – often with masks worn under the chin and with no concept of distancing. This crowding is also seen at the boarding site where the same casual attitude is repeated right under the noses of airline employees.
Airlines hand out masks, sanitisers as well as face shields to all passengers but do nothing to implement the use of the same on the flight. It is a routine sight to see passengers putting away masks given by airlines and carrying on wearing whatever loose masks they came to the airport with. Face shields provided by airlines are rarely used. Considering the wearing of fresh masks and face shields were part of the conditions on which airlines obtained permission to operate in the first place, it is nothing but a travesty of the whole process for airlines to hand these out but not insist on them being used.
Airlines have been screaming from treetops that air travel is COVID-safe. Two factors have been touted as evidence of this. One has been the air circulation system onboard aircraft, which introduces fresh air into the air conditioning with greater frequency than in offices. The other has been a statistical one – stating that though millions have taken to flying during the pandemic, there are hardly any cases of flight-based infections.
The air circulation system of modern planes is certainly better than that of most offices. But that is true only when the plane is in the air and its air-conditioning system is in full flow. If a plane is on the ground for an hour and a half after boarding, it’s like fitting in 200-300 people in a small box and letting them exhale as much COVID-contaminated air as they may wish to. The low-level air conditioning that is functional in planes on the ground may as well not be there. Why these don’t find mention in standard operating procedures of airlines during a pandemic like COVID is something that defies logic.
The second factor is a statistical fantasy because there has been no serious effort either to track passengers who travelled by air, nor do passengers who may have caught the infection on board have any way of knowing if their infection could be attributed to the flight or to activities outside the airport region. Also, once there is confirmation of a case on a flight, rarely is rigorous tracking put in place to see if there was any spread of that infection or not.
This incessant search for profit shall surely be the death of us one day. Or, maybe judges who grant permission to airlines to fly should be made to travel by air more often.
(The writer is a Delhi-based filmmaker)