How can airlines re-establish public trust in air travel?

COVID | Nov 10, 2020 | By Satair | 3 min read

The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching effects on our industry. Experts are predicting that the initial months of near-complete global lockdown, which rendered 70% of the worldwide fleet out-of-service, was just the tip of the iceberg for airline operations.

In July of 2020, IATA’s chief economist Brian Pearce stated in a report from FlightGlobal that we are not likely to see a return to 2019 operational levels until 2024. In June, reported a 43% decrease in commercial flights in the United States, which was up from the staggering 77% in April. Even though the end to this pandemic is far from being determined, travel restrictions and regulations have lightened to allow for some semblance of travel normalcy.

However, as many airlines are learning, re-establishing public trust in air travel is the most significant hurdle that they will need to face until there is a widespread distribution of a vaccine or an overwhelming percentage of global herd immunity.

The cabin environment issue?

In recent surveys by IATA, Honeywell, and Oliver Wyman, all three concluded that maintaining social distancing and ineffectual cabin cleanliness are two of the chief concerns stated by passengers.

What are the biggest travel concerns for passengers?

As anyone in the industry knows, standards for maintaining cabin cleanliness before COVID-19, such as HEPA filters and between-flight cleaning, were effective at maintaining safety standards. However, airlines not only have to meet an even higher standard of cleanliness, but also the public perception of decontamination and air quality purification. Consequently, even if air travel meets the highest currency standards issued by disease control agencies like ECDC, CDC, or WHO, if passengers don’t feel safe, then they won’t travel by air.

What are the new guidelines for passenger management?

In June 2020, the European Center for Disease Control issued a 37-page report, the “Operational guidelines for the management of air passengers and aviation personnel.” The report covers suggested safety protocols for the entire travel experience – from airport to aircraft.

For the sake of this article, we will only be looking at the Risk Assessment Guidance for Infectious Diseases transmitted on Aircraft (RAGIDA) that pertains to onboard passenger management.

According to its guidelines, RAGIDA suggests that all airlines distribute information to their in-flight passengers that covers how the airlines are dealing with these six areas:

  • Proper hand hygiene, particularly before eating or drinking and after using the lavatory;
  • The appropriate use of face masks;
  • Respiratory etiquette;
  • Limiting contact with cabin surfaces;
  • Reducing in-flight service;
  • Reducing the use of the individual air-supply nozzles to the maximum extent possible, unless otherwise recommended by the aircraft manufacturer.

One main issue with this suggestion is that RAGIDA is a 40-page, heavily-worded document filled with technical jargon, most likely written for industry professionals. It’s not something that airlines can expect passengers to sit with, in order to ease their minds regarding flight safety.

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What about air quality?

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was only in rare cases of in-cabin odours that passengers would even think about the cabin air that they were breathing. However, it is safe to say that people are far more acutely aware of the air around them, and its potential for carrying airborne and surface pathogens and particulates.

The RAGIDA, along with IATA, does make mention of proper cabin air management through the recommendation of either using HEPA filters or avoiding cabin air recirculation entirely. However, as the vast majority of currently operational aircraft employ HEPA filters in their recirculated cabin air systems, guidance on new technologies is limited.

Addressing cabin air in the world of unseen elements

Notwithstanding, this does not mean that new technologies are not available. If anything, COVID-19 has been a decisive accelerator for thrusting us into the use of technologies that would have otherwise not been implemented for years. Application of ionisation purification technology, as well as ultraviolet light (UV) aircraft sanitation, are both technologies that have seen tremendous promise in raising onboard passenger safety.

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