Time to Clear Civil Flights With COVID-19 Protection

anil chopra, air power asia, Civil Aviation

Indian Prime Minister Modi just announced a 2 million Crore special economic package to restart the economy despite the fact that COVID-19 continues to spread unabated. Till date the PM has maintaining a cautious and graded approach. In his initial speech, he said “Jaan hai to Jahaan hai”. As lockdown was greatly affecting individual life, especially of the daily wagers, then the thinking became, “Jaan bhi, Jahaan bhi”. And just two days back in his interaction with the Chief Ministers, he is reported to have remarked “Jan se lekar Jag tak”. World over there is a pressure on governments to gradually open activities, and re-kick start economy. Civil aviation is an important sector. It is also one of the worst affected. Most airports currently look like graveyards of airplanes. This sector will also get some support from the economic package. There have been rumours on social media for last 24 hours that the government has cleared and released an SOP for restarting airline operations. The government was quick to deny finalizing or releasing any such document.

          Clearly some mandatory flights are required to move people from abroad to their home towns in India. Similarly some foreigners stuck in India need to go back. Within India some domestic flights most recommence for some critical personal move requirements, and also to kick start economy. As infections are stabilising in China, passengers are getting back in the air. In USA, where flights are gradually being cleared, airlines are struggle to balance scheduling fewer flights with more travelers seeking social distance. For India, initially a few flights may be cleared on the main sectors. Also there is a need to clear non scheduled flights. Private business jets are as it is at least risk. Before clearance of air travel, the entire civil flight ecosystem has to understand how to minimise the risk of transmission of corona virus. Government must issue clear guidelines.

Airport Preparation

          Each airport is peculiar, and has to prepare for resumption of operations. It is imperative to have robust planning and readiness to ensure safe travel for passengers. The airport authorities have to go through the entire activity and touch point through the airport and plan various safety measures. A detailed SOP has to be formulated and circulated to all concerned. The employee safety has to be factored in. SOP should specify the usage of the areas and need for disinfection of trolleys, washroom, water fountain, counters, security screening areas, touch screens, communication screens, elevators, lifts etc which are part of the Airport operations. Similar the SOP has to be formulated for concessionaires to ensure all areas at airport are covered. There have to be designated dustbins for disposal of PPE across terminal. There would be increased frequency of change in in-terminal air circulation. There will be need to have trolley disinfection tunnels before returning back to their locations. It will be worth considering upgrading the entire airport  air-conditioning filtration system with finer filters. 

          Special caution boards will be requires at various points for public awareness. Use social media and in-airport channels to educate passenger about social distancing, wearing mask at all times, hand hygiene, and actions to reduce touch-points at the airport. Provisions are to be made for passenger health scanning (Temperature) as per guidelines issued by government authorities

The Crew   

        There will be need to check flight currency of aircrew, and their physical fitness. The crew and staff must be paid some backlog of salaries. Since initially there will be fewer flights, the crew can be rotated and given enough rest breaks. Their arrival and departure to and from home has to be monitored. Each crew member has to show the Aarogya Setu app on arrival at the airport for duty.

Picture Credit: Bloomberg

Arrival and Check in Area Sanitization

        Passengers should be called at least half hour earlier than the pre-Covid time. Like any public place, the number of contact points are well identifiable. Sanitizers are to be placed at various points in the entire airport terminal area, and specially at passenger touch points. Action for passengers start the moment they alight from the vehicle that brings them to the airport. Baggage carts/trolleys is the first thing they have to handled. These would have to be regularly cleaned by soap or sanitizing materials. The passenger then looks for a gate to enter. The number of gates in the forecourt will have to be regulated to allow a single line per gate instead of current 2/3. The lines would need ground markings for social distancing. The CISF personnel will have to be kitted with full body PPE suits, and their gloves replaced occasionally. It will be a good idea to issue standard masks to each passenger at this stage, even if it means charging for it in the ticket itself. It should be mandatory for all passengers to have Aarogya Setu App on their mobiles and same be checked when they enter the airport.  Since the number of flights will be fewer, the check-in counters can be well spaced out. Online boarding passes are to be encouraged. It will be a good idea to initially restrict baggage further. Or charge heavily for extra baggage as a deterrent.  Check-in Counter/Baggage drop lines have to be regulated for social distancing. The airline staff at check in have to get protective clothing. UV disinfection tunnel would be required for all baggage going from check-in to the aircraft.

Security Check and F&B Areas

          The long queue at security check would have to be regulated. The trays for putting personal belongings for security checks need sanitization and an SOP finalised. The security staff need protective PPE clothing. The security check procedures need a new look with introduction of greater automation as is the case in some foreign airports. The chairs on which security personnel and airport staff sit need regular cleaning and sanitization. Same is required for the chairs in waiting areas. Markings are also required at common areas for social distancing, including food courts and lifts. Even the mopping of floors has to be increased. Only select F&B shops may be opened to begin with because the passenger load will be less. Best to sell only pre packed food for initial few weeks. Need to advise passengers to use Apps for contact less orders and purchases. Digital payments and digital menu will minimize contact.

Boarding Gates and Buses

          Seating area should ensure social distancing. Chairs not to be used should be marked. Queue managers for boarding & bussing gates have to give clear instructions. Unruly passengers be segregated immediately. Social distance marking at aerobridge and piers will be required. Need for provision of hand sanitizers at the exit of passenger bridges /bus gate arrival area. Number of bus trips would have to be increased to improve social distancing.  

Safety Onboard Aircraft

          Various  independent studies have shown that the cabin air is not just safe; it’s safer than in most homes, shops or restaurants. Passengers sit forward-facing and not face-to-face. this adds safety. Social distancing restrictions have currently been making flying impractical, if not, impossible. To begin with keep the middle seats vacant. All modern airliners reportedly have sophisticated cabin air systems with hospital-standard HEPA filters, so air is both cleaned and kept moving continuously. Should there be modification to the air-conditioning and ventilation system of the passenger cabin, so that air comes down vertically from the louvers and does not flow from one passenger to the other . Will this be a substantial modification, requiring changes by Original equipment Manufacturer (OEM)?  How long will it take. Meanwhile we know that COVID 19 is not going away in a hurry. Some additional precautions will be required for years to come. Do we need additional oxygen onboard? It is time to design special suits for the Cabin crew to ensure their safety. The onboard food would have to be pre-packaged, requiring least hand-handling. Water would be in sealed bottles only. These could be pre-positioned on seats. All passengers and crew would need to wear face mask/coverings onboard, throughout the flight and while in an airport.

        Passengers would have to be briefed not to panic when someone onboard sneezes or coughs. They don’t necessarily suffer from corona virus. As long as the person sneezing or coughing is wearing a mask, you would be safe. The Airbus aircraft manufacturer has already said that its cabin airflow and filtration systems virtually rule out airborne transmission of contaminants like coronavirus on flights. However, Airbus officials have emphasised the need for everyone onboard to follow heightened norms of hygiene. Disinfecting hands, decontamination of surfaces, and common touch points like lavatory doorknobs etc would have to be ensured by the airlines. The air remains much safer means of travel than buses and trains in terms of hygiene, and air quality. There is no airflow between front and back or left and right” says Anand Stanley, Airbus (India and South Asia) President and Managing Director. He added that “every seat gets a powerful downward wash of air, from top to bottom, at the rate of one meter per second and air is sucked out at the bottom of the floor”. He also said that “air is fully recycled every 2 to 3 minutes. The air sucked in at 10,000 meter altitude is cold (at -50 degrees Celsius), dry and uncontaminated. The inside air is at ambient temperature”. The air sucked in passes through very power HEPA filters that can keep even PM 2.5 particles out. Coronavirus is of a relatively bigger size.

Picture Credit: CGTN

Baggage Claim Areas and Departure from Airport

          UV disinfection tunnel would be required for all incoming baggage. Social distance marking will be needed around baggage belts for waiting passengers. Additional seating may be provided in this area for waiting passengers. Once the passenger is out in the forecourt, social distance marking will be required for all transport waiting areas. Guidelines would have to be issued to cab and coach providers for disinfection of cabs before use at the airport. Similar SOP will be required when metro & other modes of transport are cleared. Visitors entry into the terminal should be temporarily suspended.

Ground Handling and Staff Safety

        Ground handling involves many technical, administrative and logistics activities. All these will have to be managed by lesser staff. some delays would have to be factored. The technical staff working on the aircraft would follow the social distances norms and wear appropriate clothing. The person checking boarding passes should wear a full Covid protection suit and gloves. Provisions have to be made for PPE like masks, gloves, face shields etc for the safety and health of all employees. Safety gears would have to be tailored for each task. All staff and service providers would have to be screened at entry gate for temperature and checked through Aarogya Setu App.

Way Ahead          

The 24/7 media coverage of Corona Virus has caused a level of panic among masses. Most people think that ‘Satan’ is waiting for them all over the place. Educated and scientific approach, balancing necessity and  risk, has to be taken. Air travelers are relatively more knowledgeable. They are better organised to take precautions. They are likely to be more online savvy. They should be willing to pay for facility in difficult times. Airlines need to be flying and generating some revenue, rather than accumulating debt with idling assets on the ground. Indian economy needs to be brought back on rails. It is time to apply mind and get moving

Picture Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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