Can we go back to the Pre-Corona moments when we used to hear “Welcome on board!” announcements inside the aeroplanes? To go on an international voyage is always so great an idea but after COVID-19 the meaning of being “cool” especially during a flight has changed! The Covid-19 Pandemic has transformed the world and the Aviation industry remains the most affected. The air travel demand has dropped due to a combination of SOPs at airports, travel restrictions and the perceived wisdom that coronavirus can be contracted within the aircraft cabin due to the recycled air.

The doubts about the air travel also arise as aircrafts are enclosed spaces, where travellers are in close proximity-almost all of whom are strangers and whose contacts are obviously unknown. Therefore, even the tiniest sneeze or cough will likely worry everyone.

In this context, thinning in the passengers’ load in flights has faced a major dilemma in the Aviation Industry; if they reduce seat-occupancy, fares may soar high and if middle seats are kept empty, it may induce Corona spread! The whole hypothesis is based on the assumptions that the recycled air is the main culprit in cross-contamination; adjacent seated passengers, enclosed setting of planes, airline staff movement across the aircraft and contaminated surfaces being the other.

Let’s discuss the postulates mentioned above one by one:

Before we further argue in favor of a fearless air travel in preview of Covid-19 Pandemic, we may have to look into the air conditioning system of aircrafts.

The air conditioning system of planes starts from the air which is entering the engines of the aircraft on either sided wings. This air supply is drained from the compressor sections of the engines into the air conditioning system and so is called “Bleed Air”. It’s then ducted into the cabin through louvers, openings, and the eyeball gaspers above the passengers’ seats. The air circulates in cabin and is breathed in and out by passengers. Eventually it is sucked out of cabin into the lower ducts in the cabin to be replaced by fresh air. Here about half of it is exhausted out by the pressurization outflow valve. The remaining portion is remixed with a fresh supply from atmosphere via engines which passes through HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters that are able to trap 99.97 % of particles that are smaller up to 0.3 microns. The cycle continues on and on-cleaning the inside air nearer to the cleanest air around.

In essence, planes in modern era operate on a 50-50 air system i.e. half fresh (outside) air and half recycled (from cabin). The air outside is unsurprisingly germ-free while other half is the filtered air. The air is exchanged at a rate high enough to clear it regularly. During the process humidity of air is however compromised which can be bad for passengers suffering from sinuses and dry skin problems. That means that even with partial recycling, cabin air can be as pure as that in a hospital operation theatre. 

The studies from the independent European agency for aviation safety say that the air quality in the cabin is similar to or even better than that normally recorded in indoor environments such as offices, schools and homes. In fact, in some cases the 50-50 split is bettered i.e. Delta Air Lines. In the aircraft, the airflow is downward at the rate of one meter per second. Aircraft manufacturers say that this minimizes the risk of cross-contamination. 

The idea of leaving middle seat empty also doesn’t carry too much weight. Presently, there are varied policies in adopting SOPs regarding Social Distancing which stress more on keeping middle seat empty while inside. If the mechanism of air flow inside plane is viewed, it will be evident that it flows horizontally. In normal circumstances no transmission is liable to occur if passengers are using Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs-masks, gloves and face shield etc.) 

However, if one is seated beside a passenger who is coughing and sneezing, the risk to be infected becomes more. Therefore, instead of stressing upon middle-seat-empty solution, airlines should emphasize the use of appropriate PPEs. 

As far as the possibility of infection inside aeroplane in regard to a closed proximity is concerned, it remains a remote probability due to the fact that air circulated is kept germ free as far as possible. The studies from the independent European agency for aviation safety say that the air quality in the cabin is similar to or even better than that normally recorded in indoor environments such as offices, schools and homes. 

It is quite interesting to note that the corona virus droplets are carried from one place to the other by the moving stream of air. In this backdrop, the moving airline staff assumes a vital role in the carriage of virus from one part of plane to the other inside the aircraft .So reduction in number of servings to the passengers should be considered. 

In the light of above arguments it is hard to undertake that airplanes are a place for viruses to spread freely and unhindered if appropriate protective gears are put on. The research showed there is more potential for passengers to pick up and spread infections through “hot spots” like airport security, air ticketing, boarding clearance and other check-queues at airports. 

The evidence supports that to curtail Virus-spread, we must remain stick to proper SOP at international airports. Following are few suggestions not to take the virus along the journey:

a.      Efficient thermo screening will reduce probability of viral transport  

b.     Appropriate PPEs for each passenger

c.      PPEs for flight staff and attendants as per SOP

d.     There must be hand hygiene g practices

e.      Disinfection of surfaces like serving trays, seat-arms and call buttons in the cabin

f.       COVID PCR negative report

g.      Before and after-arrival disinfection of aircraft

It is clear the entire air transport industry has now a huge public relations job to do when this pandemic shows signs of coming to an end. Rather this is a story of an industry perhaps failing to educate the travellers on the extensive measures it has in place to make air travel safe. If you must travel, there is no real reason to avoid airplanes, compared to any other form of transport where multiple people are in close proximity to one another, such as a bus, train, or subway car. If we follow the precautions and Standard Operative Procedures in letter and spirit, the days are not far away when we will hear, across the globe the melodious rhyme, "Welcome on board!"