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Air travel in India is risky during the pandemic, but it’s still the safest

Niharika Sharma
By Niharika Sharma

Aviation and social media reporter

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Airports are sanitised and equipped. Airlines are back in action. But should Indians be getting on a flight as yet?

There’s no easy answer, experts say.

On May 25, the Narendra Modi government allowed domestic airlines to resume operations across the country, 59 days after they were grounded to curtail the spread of Covid-19. Since reopening, airports and airlines have been on overdrive, sharing photographs and statements about how they are taking abundant precautions to make flying completely safe.

Some are even sharing first-hand experiences of customers to convince the sceptics.

But just a day after flights were resumed, there was a report of a passenger onboard an IndiGo flight testing Covid-19 positive, which forced the crew and other travellers on the aircraft into a 14-day quarantine. This wasn’t a lone incident. A couple of SpiceJet passengers who travelled from Ahmedabad to Guwahati via Delhi also tested positive for the coronavirus, the airline confirmed on May 27.

These incidents have happened despite the fact that there are very few passengers on flights right now. “Currently, we are not seeing any demand for regular business routes. The bookings we have received are mostly from people who are desperate to reach somewhere as they are stuck in certain cities because of the ongoing lockdown,” Nishant Pitti, CEO of travel portal EaseMyTrip.com told Quartz.

But as life limps back to normal, flying might be the safest mode of long-distance travel, some say.

Not as bad as it seems

The air inside the aircraft is much cleaner than some of the best hospitals in the country, experts say.

“Health and hygiene inside the cabin are ensured using multiple highly efficient airflow and filtration systems,” explains the spokesperson of Netherlands-based aerospace firm Airbus. “The constant downward wash of air at one metre per second reduces the risk of cross-contamination.”

There is no right-to-left or front-to-back airflow and cabin air is fully filtered and renewed every two to three minutes, according to the Airbus expert. The air inside the aircraft is sucked out through vents on the floor and transported through highly efficient HEPA filters, which trap harmful particles such as pollen, pet dander, and dust mites, and flush out 99.9% of particles, including coronavirus.

Indian airline companies have introduced additional precautionary measures to win the trust of flyers.

For instance, SpiceJet is regularly disinfecting customer touchpoints and surfaces before every flight and has made web check-in mandatory to avoid queues at airports. The airline’s crew members and ground services personnel are undergoing detailed health check-ups at regular intervals, besides wearing protective gear at all times.

“All SpiceJet aircraft now have synthetic leather seats. These non-porous seats don’t allow the Covid-19 virus to penetrate inside them and can be easily wiped off,” the airline said.

SpiceJet
SpiceJet’s crew wearing protective gear before take off.

The airline is also providing face shield masks to passengers.

SpiceJet
Inside the SpiceJet’s Jaipur-Pune flight.

AirAsia India, a joint venture between Malaysia’s AirAsia and Tata Sons, is also providing safety kits to its passengers, which consist a mask, a face shield and a bottle of sanitiser, at the boarding gate for use during the entire flight duration.

“We have been working closely with airport operators and renewed our operating procedures to maintain adequate social distancing with floor markers at queuing areas including check-in counters, aerobridges and coach connecting from the terminal building to the respective AirAsia flight,” the company said in a press release on May 25. “AirAsia India will follow a reverse zone boarding process starting from the rear of the aircraft. Only cabin baggage and one check-in baggage will be allowed per passenger during their travel.”

The government has also released guidelines for air travel including the mandatory download of India’s contact tracing Aarogya Setu app.

Airports, on their part, are also trying to make travelling safer amid Covid-19. Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International (IGI) airport has floor-marked passenger areas on the kerbside and in-terminal to ensure social distancing. The airport is sanitising trolleys using disinfection tunnels each time they are used. Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSMIA) is pushing cashless transactions at restaurants and retail stores to avoid human contact, among other measures.

But despite all these measures, experts say, there’s a list of precautions passengers will still need to take before they set out on a journey.

Still not enough

“Airports are large, indoor spaces with large air ventilation systems. They require air checks and humidity controls between 40% to 60%. Flights also cram in people with less than 20% humidity and colder temperatures which may not be conducive for asymptomatic Covid-19 cases,” said Mansoor Ali, an expert on air treatment products and founder of air-purifier manufacturing firm AMFAH-India.

Besides, the exposure passengers have while travelling to the airport is also worrisome. For such situations, Ali advises passengers to start taking precautions from home for their respective flights.

To begin with, one should track the indoor air quality (temperature, humidity, and air quality) of their cities and the airports. Then he suggests carrying a saline nasal spray and using a moisturiser to prevent dryness. He further adds that people should avoid using contact lens while flying.

Healthcare experts also warn caution that the measures taken by airlines do not guarantee full protection against Covid-19.

“Air travel during the Covid-19 era is risky but if passengers maintain social distance and wear masks, then they may save themselves. However, there is no 100% rule that masks and hand sanitisers are tools for protection,” cautions Dr Udgeath Dhir, director and head of cardiothoracic and vascular surgery department at Gurugram-based Fortis Memorial Research Institute. “What kind of mask the individuals are wearing also makes a difference. A surgical mask is less capable than N95 mask in keeping novel coronavirus at bay. If you keep touching your mask without covering your nose, and not sanitising your hands frequently then the whole purpose of protection is defeated.”

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