Aviation is fighting for survival. Cruise ships are grounded. As the pandemic grows, the travel industry faces an uncertain future and is scrambling to adapt.
Those aircraft still flying are now subject to stricter than ever hygiene protocols, but when the threat of the virus eventually lifts, the transportation industry will face heightened concerns about infection.
In the immediate wake of the global outbreak, airlines adopted stringent measures ranging from the mundane, like suspending hot towel service, to the extreme, like fogging an entire aircraft with disinfectant.
As more data becomes available about how the virus spreads, these may widen further. Some aspects of aircraft cabin design may even be reconsidered.
So what can passengers expect in the future to give them peace of mind about the spread of disease?
While it’s clear that planes have accelerated the spread of the virus by transporting infected passengers across continents, the risks of transmission within the cabin are less known.

Moving around
The risk of infection on board airplanes isn't fully understood.

The risk of infection on board airplanes isn’t fully understood.
Sitting within two rows of an infected person on a flight is defined as a primary risk factor under World Health Organization guidelines, but passengers moving about during a flight could increase the potential for transmission. On one particularly ill-fated flight during the 2003 SARS outbreak, a passenger infected 22 out of 120 people on board, suggesting some outside the two-row zone are also in danger.
However, a team of researchers studying passenger behaviour on 10 transcontinental flights in 2018, found that although 62% of fliers moved about while in the air, none of 229 surface and air samples gathered tested positive for respiratory diseases.
“We were a little surprised by this, because we had 10 flights and eight took place during what’s called the flu season,” said Vicki Stover Hertzberg, a biostatistician at Atlanta’s Emory University, who led the study.
What airlines are doing to sanitize planes
“What we did find was that the bacteria on a plane look much like what you would find in your home, in your office or in places that people normally frequent.
She said cases where someone becomes ill due to contact with someone on an airplane are few and far between.
“Most of the infections that are due to air travel are because someone infected has been transported from point A to point B,” she said. However, Hertzberg says that the new hygiene measures the airlines have put in place are necessary and applauds them.
“I hope that this will give people pause,” she says about the outbreak. “Several years ago there were proposals for things like touchless lavatory entry and touchless lavatories in general. But the airlines would have to build that in as they’re purchasing these planes.”

Filtered air

Airlines have introduced rigorous cleaning procedures.

Airlines have introduced rigorous cleaning procedures.
Modern planes are equipped with special filters, called HEPA, whose efficiency is similar to those used in operating rooms in hospitals. The air inside the cabin is an even mixture of recirculated and fresh air from outside.
“Although passenger density is very high, air from the ventilation system is very clean, because HEPA filters can block particles with a diameter of 0.3 micron or larger, with an efficiency of 99% or higher,” says Qingyan Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University in Indiana who has researched the spread of air particles in passenger vehicles and how to track them.
However, Chen argues, that doesn’t mean that all the air inside the cabin is clean, because a person sneezing, coughing, talking or breathing emits droplets that could be transmitted to nearby passengers before the HEPA filter has a chance to catch them.
Cable News Network


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