Is the aviation industry failing to get its message across? Honeywell survey finds almost three quarters of travellers are more concerned about the environment on an aircraft than in an airport

28 May, 2020

How safe are we when we take to the air? The statistics prove that air travel is one of the safest forms of transport, yet many people are fearful of flying. Similarly, we all believe that the recycled air onboard aircraft means we all step off a flight with a cold. Yet airlines are telling us that the risk of any virus transmission on board aircraft is actually extremely low.

We can probably blame the attention any aviation accident receives in the media for the reason why people may be fearful of flying. The myth regarding the cabin environment may be from stories passed down from the days when system were perhaps not as efficient as they are today.

The Blue Swan Daily highlighted recently how aviation has been acknowledged as the vector that took Covid-19 global. That can’t be disputed. But it is more about the global connectivity that air transport offers than the environment on the aircraft that are facilitating that access.

The coronavirus spread around the globe has certainly put hygiene and traveller health at the forefront of minds and we are all learning that despite our pre-conceived ideas the environment onboard modern generation airliners is actually cleaner than most others. In fact, IATA’s director general, Alexandre de Juniac explained to The Blue Swan Daily on the sidelines of the CAPA Qatar Aviation, Aeropolitical and Regulatory Summit in Doha at the start of this year that even with partial recycling, cabin air can be as pure as that in a hospital operation theatre.

IATA says that evidence, although limited, suggests that, the risk of virus transmission on board aircraft is low even without special measures. This is proving to be the case in its research into the spread of Covid-19 which has found that contact tracing for a flight from China to Canada with a symptomatic passenger revealed no onboard transmission, while similar contact tracing for a flight between China and the US with 12 symptomatic passengers revealed no onboard transmission.

An IATA informal survey of 18 major airlines identified that during the first three months of 2020 just three episodes of suspected in-flight transmission of Covid-19 were recorded, all from passengers to crew. A further four episodes were reports of apparent transmission from pilot to pilot, which could have been in-flight or before/after (including layover). But, again, there were no instances of suspected passenger-to-passenger transmission.

This mainly thought to be due to the High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters on modern aircraft that are said to clean cabin air to operating theatre quality, further assisted by high levels of fresh air circulation. Air flow from ceiling to floor further reduces the potential for transmission forward or aft in the cabin, moreover, air flow rates are high and not conducive to droplet spread in the same way as in other indoor environments

There are several other plausible reasons why Covid-19, which is spread primarily by respiratory droplets, has not resulted in more on-board transmission, such as passengers facing forward with limited face-to-face interactions and seats providing a barrier to transmission forward to aft in the cabin.

With this knowledge, it is alarming to hear that an informal Honeywell survey taken by more than 700 frequent business and personal air travel passengers found that (72%) were more concerned with the environment on an aeroplane than in an airport (28%).

Nearly 60% of respondents cited social distancing as their top priority during travel, while about half of respondents cited the air quality (51%), while personal protection equipment such as masks (47%) was another top priority.

The Blue Swan Daily highlighted previously that airlines need to be proactive in downplaying the chances of catching viruses onboard. It would appear that this is not being heard. “I think the airlines and airframe manufacturers have done an imperfect job of explaining air filtration inside the aircraft and the degree of cycle of air and the benefits that has,” William (Bill) Franke, managing partner at airline investment company Indigo Partners, highlighted during a recent CAPA Masterclass session.

It is understandable that travellers will remain cautious and we have seen with the media attention to air accidents, how it can influence viewpoints. The Honeywell survey if anything will enlighten the industry that it needs to more to communicate positive messages.

Its findings also highlight that cleanliness validation via technology was by far (60%) the most important way to provide confidence in seating-area-related cleanliness, while other considerations included providing cleaning supplies directly to the passenger (23%), followed by being informed and updated by the cabin crew (12%). Passengers' most-desired safety items during travel were masks, hand sanitiser and alcohol wipes.