Is it safe to travel by flight amid coronavirus pandemic?
Here’s what the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention and other top agencies have to say...
As airlines across the globe prepare to serve more passengers, travellers face the fear of getting infected and being exposed to coronavirus, especially when travelling on a flight with potentially hundreds of other people. So is it safe to travel on flights amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?
According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):"Travel increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19. We don't know if one type of travel is safer than others; however, airports, bus stations, train stations, and rest stops are all places travellers can be exposed to the virus in the air and on surfaces. These are also places where it can be hard to social distance (keep six feet apart from other people)."
IS THERE A HIGHER RISK OF INFECTION ON A PLANE?
According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the risk of catching an infection on an aircraft is typically lower than in a shopping center or an office environment.
The CDC, in its set of COVID-19 guidelines for air travellers, has said: "Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes. However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and you may have to sit near others (within six feet), sometimes for hours. This may increase your risk of exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.”
"Air travel requires spending time in security lines and airport terminals, which can bring you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces," the CDC adds.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says: "Research has shown that there is little risk of any communicable disease being transmitted on board an aircraft. The quality of aircraft cabin air is carefully controlled. Ventilation provides a total change of air 20–30 times per hour.
"Most modern aircraft have recirculation systems, which recycle up to 50 percent of cabin air. The recirculated air is usually passed through high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters of the type used in hospital operating theatres and intensive care units, which trap dust particles, bacteria, fungi and viruses.
"Highly contagious conditions, such as influenza, are more likely to be spread to other passengers in situations where the aircraft ventilation system is not operating," it adds.
The CDC, instead of recommended social distancing inside commercial planes, advised a series of preventive and hygienic measures to be taken by the airlines pilot and crew to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The US Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration in its latest safety alerts for operators on May 11 said that air carriers and crews conducting flight operations having a nexus to the US, including both domestic and foreign air carriers, should follow CDC's occupational health and safety guidance.
The CDC issued its guidelines in first guidelines for the airlines and airline crew on March and again in May.
The CDC, which has issued an exhaustive social guideline measures in various sections, is silent on keeping the middle seat of a plane unoccupied so as to maintain the six feet distance between two passengers.
It calls for the plane crew to report to the CDC a traveller with specific COVID-19 symptoms like fever, persistent cough, difficulty in breathing and appearing unwell.
Asking the airlines and cabin crew to review infection control guidelines for cabin crew, the CDC recommends several measures for cabin crew to protect themselves and others, manage a sick traveller, clean contaminated areas, and take actions after a flight.
Prominent among them include wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, particularly after assisting sick travellers or touching potentially contaminated body fluids or surfaces and use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer (containing at least 60 per cent alcohol) if soap and water are not available.
Airlines should consider providing alcohol-based hand sanitizer to cabin and flight crews for their personal use, it said.
The CDC guidelines do not recommend following social distancing inside a plane between two passengers or keeping the middle seat unoccupied. But it asks to minimise contact between passengers and cabin crew and the sick person.
"If possible, separate the sick person from others (by a distance of 2 meters or 6 feet, ideally) and designate one crew member to serve the sick person. Offer a facemask, if available and if the sick person can tolerate it. If a facemask is not available or cannot be tolerated, ask the sick person to cover their mouth and nose with tissues when coughing or sneezing," said the CDC guidelines.
If no symptomatic passengers were identified during or immediately after the flight, the CDC recommends airlines to follow routine operating procedures for cleaning aircraft, managing solid waste, and wearing PPE.
"If symptomatic passengers are identified during or immediately after the flight, routine cleaning procedures should be followed, and enhanced cleaning procedures should also be used," it said.
Clean porous (soft) surfaces (e.g, cloth seats, cloth seat belts) at the seat of the symptomatic passengers and within 6 feet of the symptomatic passengers in all directions, it added.