On the path to recovery? We may not see many of the solutions being adopted by airports to keep us safe while flying, but they will see us and hopefully reduce any risk of Covid-19 transmission

7 May, 2020

Airports are quickly working to develop a safe environment for the return of air passengers, but for many are seen as the weak chain in the customer journey. While the deployment of automated cleaning machines and increased sanitisation machines are visible changes, the problem could be that much of what is going on is happening behind the scenes, away from the travellers' eye.

Technology has already been a major part of the airport experience and that will be even more significant in the 'new normal'. London Heathrow Airport's CEO, John Holland-Kaye this week informed the UK government's House of Commons Transport Committee that the European gateway is working to trial technologies and processes which could form the basis of a future common international Standard for health screening at all global airports.

The aim of the collective measures being trialled is to reduce the risk of contracting or transmitting Covid-19 - or any other virus for that matter - while travelling, but the news that trials are commencing will certainly act as a major fillip to encourage travellers that can fly knowing that health and safety measures are in place.

The package of measures that will need to be adopted are widely believed to need to consist of tried and tested processes and technology as well as innovations new to the airport environment. Concepts under review as part of the Heathrow trials include: UV sanitation, which could be used to quickly and efficiently sanitise security trays; facial recognition thermal screening technology to accurately track body temperature; and contact-free security screening equipment to reduce person-to-person contact.

Before any new measures are rolled out across the airport, Heathrow officials say that they will be reviewed against three tests to ensure that they are medically grounded, build consumer confidence and practical for airports to deliver. The first of these trials will be a temperature screening technology which uses camera detection systems capable of monitoring the temperatures of people moving through the airport.

Mr Holland-Kaye says these passenger-facing trials will first be conducted in the airport's immigration halls. If successful, the equipment will then be rolled out to departures, connections and colleague search areas. The trials are due to begin in the next two weeks in Terminal 2.

Thermal scanning is not new and is a solution that has already been adopted by some other airports in response to Covid-19. International hub airports need to follow an international standard and carrying out temperature screening has become commonplace during viral outbreaks.

What we will see though is all passengers wearing facemasks while flying. An increasing number of airlines have made them mandatory over the past week and now IATA has publicly supported mask-wearing by passengers and crew to "reduce the already low risk" of virus transmission while onboard aircraft.

At the same time IATA has dismissed the idea of blocking middle seats as a solution, "avoiding the dramatic cost increases" to air travel that such onboard social distancing measures would bring.

IATA believes the wearing of face coverings could be "a critical part of a layered approach to biosecurity" to be implemented temporarily when people return to travelling by air. Even if there is limited risk of transmission in the air, Alexandre de Juniac, IATA's director general and CEO says it will give passengers "the confidence to fly and keeps the cost of flying affordable". One without the other "will have no lasting benefit," he adds.

The nonsensical idea of blocking the middle seat in each row, may work as a technique to encourage people to fly, but as The Blue Swan Daily has noted, it does not achieve the recommended separation for social distancing to be effective. Despite this, some governments have suggested they would mandate such a solution.

These rules would "fundamentally shift the economics of aviation," says IATA and slash the maximum load factor to 62%, well below the average industry break-even load factor of 77%. Naturally, with fewer seats to sell, unit costs would rise sharply. IATA says that compared to 2019, air fares would need to go up dramatically (estimated at between 43% and 54% depending on the region) just to cover costs.

An informal IATA survey of 18 major airlines identified just three episodes of suspected in-flight transmission of Covid-19 during 1Q 2020, 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). There were no instances of suspected passenger-to-passenger transmission even after contact tracing for a flight between China and the US with 12 symptomatic Covid-19 passengers.

A more detailed IATA examination of contact tracing of 1,100 passengers during 1Q 2020 who were confirmed for Covid-19 after air travel revealed no secondary transmission among the more than 100,000 passengers in the same flights. Just two possible cases were found among crew members.

The long-term solutions for Covid-19 depend on medical science. "We need a vaccine, an immunity passport or an effective Covid-19 test that can be administered at scale. Work on all of these is promising. But none will be realised before we will need to re-start the industry. That's why we must be ready with a series measures, the combination of which will reduce the already low risk of inflight transmission," says Mr de Juniac.

Wider requirements suggested by IATA include temperature screening of passengers, airport workers and travellers; boarding and deplaning processes that reduce contact with other passengers or crew; limiting movement within the cabin during flight; more frequent and deeper cabin cleaning; and simplified catering procedures that lower crew movement and interaction with passengers.