By Captain Roger Smith
An old expression among aviators goes, “There are old pilots and bold pilots; but there are no old, bold pilots.” From the very beginning of my 46 years in aviation, I learned to manage risk to survive. Given the COVID-19 concerns our passengers face, we must manage risk to ensure safety from an infectious disease just as we manage other risks like weather, pilot and air traffic control errors, miscommunication, or mechanical malfunctions.
Concern for passenger safety is not only an airline’s responsibility, it is a matter of financial survival. Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that United Airlines passenger loads are down 65 percent from last August, Delta almost 70 percent, and American 55 percent. Southwest is hoping to fly 75 percent of its last year’s schedule. With such low load factors, airlines lose money and employees lose jobs.
So, what are the airlines doing to win you back?
CLEANLINESS: Passenger aircraft have never been cleaner. As one example, Southwest aircraft experience a three-tiered cleaning process. First each plane is sprayed nose to tail with an electro-static disinfectant and anti-microbial spray that kills germs and viruses on contact and lasts 30 days. Second, Sani-cide EX-3, a broad-spectrum disinfectant, is sprayed on all common areas between each flight: seat belts, overhead bin handles, arm rests, tray tables, and lavatories. Third, each aircraft is given a thorough six- to seven-hour deep cleaning every night.
FILTERED AIR: Most commercial aircraft are now equipped with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that are used in hospitals to ensure germ-free environments. These filters remove 99.97 percent of harmful airborne particles in cabin air. There is not a lot of cabin air that needs filtering however, since the aircraft air circulation system completely exchanges cabin air with fresh outside air every three minutes. HEPA filters and air circulation systems ensure the cabin air is cleaner than most outdoor air and office complexes.
SOCIAL DISTANCING: One cannot adequately social distance from strangers in airports or on aircraft, but close contact can be limited. Plexiglass dividers are at all ticket counters. Passengers are loaded and unloaded in groups of ten or fewer and floor markers designate proper spacing. Loads are limited. TSA requires passengers to scan their own boarding passes rather than exchange paper tickets or cell phones. For instance, Southwest 737-700 jets carry 143 passengers, but they are limiting loads (at least through September 30, 2020) to 114 to ensure middle seats are vacant.
CONTAINING POTENTIAL VIRUS TRANSMISSIONS: Passengers and crew members are required to wear masks, and airlines are enforcing this policy. Some airlines even ban non-compliant customers from future flights. Some airports are installing thermal cameras to determine passengers with fevers, while others are checking passenger temperatures at gates or requiring a brief health assessment at check-in. Test programs were recently announced for a dozen U.S. airports to allow TSA to perform temperature scans.
Next, what can you do to make your flying experience safer and easier?
SECURITY: TSA recently increased the liquid container limit to 12 ounces from the previous 3.4 ounces. Also, agents will no longer go through your luggage to take out laptops, cell phones, or other items that cannot go through the screening devices inside bags. Don’t forget to take them out or you may be asked to go through the screening line again—not fun! Also, make sure to download your security documents or print a paper copy before you get to the airport.
FOOD AND BEVERAGES: Many airport eateries are closed or have limited capacity. Most airlines severely curtailed inflight food and beverage service to avoid spreading germs and potential viruses. So, pack your own beverages and snacks. Also, it’s best to bring your own sanitizer.
CHECK REQUIREMENTS AT YOUR DESTINATION: Consult either your airline or the U.S. State Department travel website. For instance, Alaska requires a 14-day quarantine or Covid-19 test within 72 hours for arriving passengers.
The good news is your flying experience has never been cleaner, less crowded, or cheaper than now. Of course, there are risks, as there are whenever humans venture into the sky. However, aviation professionals learned to manage risk, and dealing with COVID-19 is no exception.
Airline employees are doing their best, and research by airlines and aircraft manufacturers is full speed ahead to determine even better procedures. They are ready when you are.
Captain Roger Smith was a career USAF fighter pilot and recently retired from Southwest Airlines.