You can’t touch this! Health checks, cleaning programmes and social spacing initiatives could be here to stay to provide reassurance and confidence in flying

15 April, 2020

The aviation and travel industries are resilient and have endured and recovered from terrorist attacks, other health epidemics, and financial downturns. The big question though is how will corporate travellers and holidaymakers feel as travel restrictions are slowly lifted on an individual basis by countries across the world?

After being told for months to stay at home for risk of catching, spreading and potentially dying from COVID-19 and adapting to social isolation, will people feel comfortable once the shackles are released to once more step out into the wider world? The lifting of the strictly maintained lockdown in Wuhan in China – where the coronavirus is believed to have originated- has suggested people will quickly revert back to their previous ways. The lifting this week of some restrictions across a handful of European countries will also provide some further insights into people’s habits.

But, what is clear is that health checks, cleaning programmes and social spacing initiatives will become commonplace for travellers to provide reassurance and confidence. For aviation, once misconceptions over aircraft air condition systems are corrected, it is at the airport that the most stringent health, cleaning and safety measures may need to be adopted.

The Blue Swan Daily has already highlighted how safe the air is onboard a modern commercial airliner in the feature: Coronavirus: Air as pure as an operating theatre – when grounded aircraft return to the air, airlines need to be proactive in downplaying the chances of catching viruses onboard. This highlighted that even with partial recycling, cabin air can be as pure as that in a hospital operation theatre.

There have been studies that show that if you are unfortunate enough to be sat next to anyone who has such a virus and that person coughs or sneezes all over you there is a very good chance you will catch it; that goes without saying.

That is why a number of airlines are already introducing capacity restrictions and not selling middle seats - not necessarily social distancing, but it is a start. They are also being more relaxed about seat assignments to spread passengers around the cabin. This may mean more space for travellers, but will come with an obvious price increase for tickets as airlines seek to generate the same revenue with up to a third less capacity in the case of a short-haul airliner.

In the US, Delta Air Lines is one such example adopting this policy. It has also introduced a revised boarding procedure to accommodate social distancing. The need for speed that has most recently influenced changes to how we board aircraft is now out the window and regardless of fare class, and tier status the US major is now loading aircraft from back to front. This temporary measure minimises contact between customers and potential exposure to any possible contaminants.

Aircraft are perhaps not the problem. “In a lot of ways you are safer in an aircraft than in the airport in terms of what or who you touch,” highlighted CAPA – Centre for Aviation’s chairman emeritus Peter Harbison during the intelligence provider’s first in its CAPA Masterclass webinar series.

A couple of years back, a study into the presence of respiratory viruses in the passenger environment of a major airport in order to identify risk points and guide measures to minimise transmission delivered some alarming results.

That research showed the potential for passengers to pick up and spread infections through “hot spots” like airport security and this could be especially important during an international outbreak of disease or a pandemic. It found viruses were most commonly found on the plastic trays that are circulated along the passenger queue at the hand luggage X-ray checkpoint with 50% of samples taken in this area detecting viruses.

There are already signs of how airports are responding to concerns… and technology appears the main solution. Examples include Cyberdyne upgrading five autonomous floor cleaning robots deployed at Tokyo Haneda Airport to enable them to "spray antiseptic solution to walls and floorings in the passenger terminal building" to aid disinfection. Similarly, Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International has introduced Avidbots Neo, a fully autonomous floor scrubbing robot, to clean the airport.

At Guiyang Longdongbao International Airport a 5G patrol robot developed by Guangzhou Gosuncn Robot Corporation has been deployed to perform thermal screening of passengers to detect symptoms of coronavirus. The robot is equipped with an infrared thermometer and can simultaneously screen up to ten passengers within a five metre radius.

The further adoption of contactless digital identity technology with advanced biometrics is another obvious benefit that would prevent physical interaction with potentially infected devices, personnel or surfaces. But what is clear is that a standardised solution is required to overcome what could be a crucial issue for the industry. This needs to be an international response and based on medical expertise.

Perhaps, future hygiene requirements could actually deliver a new ancillary offer for airports, just like the sale of transparent bags for liquids when that restriction was introduced for passengers’ cabin baggage. Wuxi Sunan Shuofang International Airport has reportedly installed four self service face mask vending machines at its passenger terminal facilities, with transactions able to be completed using contactless QR code payment.