U.S. to Nervous Air Passengers: You’re on Your Own
Trump officials turn a deaf ear as pols and passenger advocates warn that the next wave of infection could come to an airport near you.
The coronavirus pandemic’s pathway from China into the U.S. was through our airports. Now we could be on the brink of another wave of infection via airports—this time of our own making.
While the rest of the world is adopting clear rules to guide the safe recovery of air travel the Trump administration is leaving U.S. airlines and airports to set their own rules.
The result is a shambles—a confusing and contradictory patchwork of measures without uniform enforcement or effective guidance for passengers that would reassure them that is safe to fly.
Two Democratic senators, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, are demanding clear, consistent and enforceable rules from government agencies citing “significant gaps in our overall safety system.” And the head of a passengers’ advocacy group warns that the chaos could lead the U.S. into becoming this summer “one big hot spot.”
One indication of how seriously this threat is being taken is that Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York said Thursday on CNN that, given that his state now had the lowest infection rate in the nation, he was considering imposing a quarantine on passengers arriving in New York from states where new cases are soaring.
Airlines and airports are anxious to get America into the air again—for obvious economic reasons. It’s reckoned that in 2020 the number of airline passengers globally will drop by 1.5 billion. But health experts stress that the risks of boarding an airplane during the pandemic are still hard to assess and mitigate and that the return to scheduled flights should be cautious and guided by the best medical advice.
The world’s governing body for aviation, the International Civil Aviation Organization, was untypically swift in establishing a consensus among its 192 member states for how to resume international flights guided by a new set of health safety protocols.
These steps come in phases, and the current phase, “initial increase of passenger travel with relatively low passenger volumes,” includes distancing at airports of at least three feet, deep cleaning of gates and airplanes, eliminating or minimizing food and beverage service, wearing masks at all times and the rather loose suggestion of “separated seating arrangements when occupancy allows it.”
And that is where the anxiety of passengers will be most focused: the safety, or otherwise, of the airplane cabin.
Boarding the airplane is the point at which all control of personal health risks passes from the passenger to the airline, entering a tube that has proven in the past to be a potential super-spreader for infection: it’s a confluence of hundreds of people from different starting points brought into close proximity for hours who then disperse to many different destinations.
And yet the airline industry argues that the airplane cabin is the safest and most reliably sterile environment you will encounter in the course of a trip. They compare the quality of cabin air to a hospital operating theater, albeit that nobody is wearing scrubs or PPE or following any exacting protocols.
Indeed, the International Air Transport Association, IATA, not a regulator but the trade and lobbying body for the airlines, is claiming that the risk of infection “is probably lower than in many confined spaces because modern airplanes have cabin air filtration systems equipped with HEPA filters.”
HEPA—high efficiency particulate air filters—are, according to the IATA, able to capture more than 99 percent of airborne microbes—“virtually all viruses and bacteria are removed.”
Half of the air circulating in a cabin comes from outside and the other half is filtered, recirculated air. In a modern jet this is part of the overall climate control system in which comfortable temperature is maintained wherever in the cabin you are seated. And the air quality in coach should be as good as it is in first or business class.
However, the age of an airplane can make a difference in the quality of the cabin climate, and that might well affect health safety. The Daily Beast asked the IATA if they could give more precise information on differences according to the age of airline fleets.
Their answer was not specific: HEPA filters were, they said, in use on “all modern in-production large Western built aircraft, the majority of older large transports and the majority of regional jets.”
They added, “Some turboprop aircraft use recirculated air with HEPA filtration. Others use filtration systems (or not at all) or use 100 percent outside air without recirculation.”
One airplane that U.S. passengers are particularly likely to encounter is the wide-body Boeing 767—American, Delta and United all fly them, both on domestic routes and internationally, and they can be as much as 22 years old. The cabins often look their age and the cabin climate controls are of a different era.
Significant advances were made in cabin climate quality—and noticeably in air quality—in the two newest wide-body jets, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350.
Before these jets appeared the cabin air in all jets was pressurized to equal air at 8,000 feet. In the new jets it is equal to 6,000 feet—making it more humid and lessening the effects of jet lag. A travel health expert told the Daily Beast that drier air “might kill more virus but could increase vulnerability by drying out people’s noses, throats and respiratory passages—greater humidity is a better option.”
There are still many unknowns about what happens if an infectious person gets to board an airplane. The level of risk to others involves not just where the infectious passenger is seated but how passengers and cabin crew move around and interact during a normal flight.
This was, literally, uncharted territory until, in 2016, a team from Emory University in Atlanta made a detailed study of 10 domestic flights in the U.S., varying in length from 211 minutes to 313 minutes, all in coach class, and all on single-aisle jets. On seven of the 10 flights there were no empty seats.
The researchers were testing the validity of long-standing guidance by public health agencies that the greatest risk of being infected by a respiratory disease was to passengers sitting within two rows of an infectious person during a flight.
One reason for the study was that during the SARS outbreak in 2002 and the outbreak of the H1N1 swine fever virus in 2009 it was discovered that 40 percent of the passengers infected during flights were seated well beyond the two-row zone.
In contrast, the Emory researchers concluded that, based on their 10 flights in the U.S., there was only a 2 percent chance of spread of infection to seats beyond the two-row zone, far lower than in the SARS and H1N1 cases. They explained this by pointing out that those cases occurred on far longer transoceanic flights (ranging from 9-1/2 to 14 hours in duration) and on twin-aisle jets where there was far more moving around by passengers and cabin crew.
The researchers found that 38 percent of passengers never left their seats during the flight and another 38 percent left only once. People in aisle seats were the most likely to move, and those in window seats the least likely.
The airplanes used in the Emory study were the most ubiquitous on U.S. domestic routes, the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320. Those of us who have long endured the sardine-can spacing in single-aisle cabins never suspected that the density of coach seating on transcontinental flights in the U.S. might turn out to be a blessing because it acts as a deterrent to passengers moving around, and therefore decreases the risk of spreading infection.
Of course, none of these studies could have anticipated how virulent the coronavirus would be.
Doctor Richard Dawood, a specialist in travel medicine at the Fleet Street Clinic in London, told The Daily Beast: “The best way of lowering the risk is to avoid having infected people on board. This could be done by testing, or by actively encouraging people not to travel if they are symptomatic—this runs counter to airline culture, but it makes most sense.
“Pre-flight testing at the airport could become a thing, if it could be speeded up and made cheaper and more reliable. The fastest I have come across is 15 minutes, using a one-at-a-time machine with quite high costs, but everyone is working to boost the technology. In the longer term a vaccination certificate might be needed.”
Dr. Dawood is concerned about choke points in the boarding process —particularly the air bridge from the gate to the airplane: “Air bridges are unventilated gangways and should not be used as a waiting area.”
We are far short of seeing the kind of effective pre-flight screening cited by Dr. Dawood at U.S. airports. Paul Hudson, the president of the country’s largest passenger advocacy group, FlyersRights, describes the consequences of America’s lack of a coherent template for health safety while flying:
“We are getting reports in the past few weeks of people being infected due to no masking with coughing passengers, flights that are 30 to 100 percent full, no blocking of middle seats, no testing or questioning of overseas passengers, no temperature checks or screening of passengers and crew or service workers for illness, nor warnings against non-essential travel or warnings to those over 60 years old and no procedures for cleaning bathroom surfaces after each use.”
Once airlines realize they can fill a flight, all talk of leaving open middle seats disappears. For example, this week, as the European budget airline EasyJet resumed flying, Johan Lundgren, its boss, said he would feel safe flying in a full cabin and that EasyJet passengers will not have to sit six feet apart—although they will be compelled to wear masks.
Of the three largest U.S. airlines, American is the most ambitious in resuming domestic flights—it aims to reach 55 percent of its pre-virus schedule by July. Delta aims for 37 percent and United 30 percent. However, Southwest, by far the largest budget airline, is planning to reach 62 percent by July. Across the board, ticket prices fell by an average of 23 percent in May.
Hudson told the Daily Beast that he was advising his members not to fly if they don’t have to: “The U.S. is the outlier here, not conforming to international protocols and heading to become one big hot spot this summer. For the airlines the priority is to keep revenue going up, everything else is secondary.”
One problem peculiar to America is that health experts have been unable to overcome the cultural aversion to wearing masks, fanned by Trump himself. Masking is readily embraced elsewhere in the world because it has been proved to be effective and is particularly critical to safety in flying.
Senators Markey and Blumenthal wrote to Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, on June 9 to “immediately issue strong, nationwide rules to protect the health and safety of the flying public.”
They said, “Federal leadership on airline safety has been absent, forcing airlines and airports to develop their own rules…unfortunately, these voluntary protocols have created a patchwork of rules that leave significant safety gaps in our overall aviation system.”
The senators have introduced a bill that would require the Department of Transportation, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security to establish a joint task force that would recommend guidelines for safe travel, but their letter insists that Chao and Azar not wait for the bill to become law but immediately direct that face masks should be worn “by all individuals engaged in air travel;” make sure that front-line crew are provided with personal protective equipment; establish uniform protocols for social distancing in airports and on airplanes and mandate standards for the deep cleaning of cabins and cockpits after each flight.
That is not likely. Hudson says that in frequent conversations with DOT officials they viewed any guidelines as strictly voluntary and refused to even encourage the airlines to follow them.
The very basic steps needed to protect flyers—distancing at the airport, wearing masks, rigorous cleaning of the airplanes—are probably the limit of what the industry (and many passengers) will tolerate.
Dr. Dawood believes that it would be better to cut out spending time in airport bars, restaurants and shops before checking in and get people directly through check-in and security, using digital boarding cards. That still leaves the problem of what happens beyond. There is talk of business class lounges being closed but, as Dr. Dawood says, “If people can’t congregate in lounges, they will simply end up congregating somewhere else.”
In any event, the pandemic is testing how much risk passengers, airports and airlines are willing to take in order to fully restore something that has become integral to our lives: the freedom to travel as often and as far as we choose. If we misjudge that risk—and many Americans seem ready to take big risks—the virus will soon let us know.