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Aviation industry… The shape of things to come

As countries across the globe ease out lock down occasioned by COVID -19, airlines and airport authorities are unveiling new measures that will shape air travel. From decontamination of airport terminals, aircraft and other common user facilities, a new wave of measures, including social distancing on board, compulsory wearing of face mask, no serving of meals and drinks on board will welcome passengers as global carriers get on board when airports re-open for scheduled, charter and other flights, KELVIN OSA – OKUNBOR reports.

Things have fallen apart in global aviation since COVID-19 pandemic enveloped the sector. Airlines, airport authorities, ground handling companies, passenger and ramp handling service providers, Immigration and Customs officials and other involved in border control are unable to keep the centre together.

Aside containment and curtailment measures evolved by national and supra national governments to arrest the spread of the deadly virus; the global air transport sector is yet to get on its feet in navigating around the unprecedented crisis triggered by the pandemic.

As the multilateral organisations rally to get airports re- opened for resumption of flights, a deluge of surprise awaits passengers as airlines, airport authorities, border control agencies – Immigration and Customs roll out new measures for boarding of aircraft as lessons learnt from the ravaging effects of COVID – 19, which put global air travel on tenterhooks.

Global regulator’s position

International Air Transport Association (IATA) said a lot would change in air travel as carriers get their airplanes back to the skies post COVID -19.

The body urged airlines planning social distancing on-board their airplanes as a measure to bring back passengers’ confidence to jettison the idea because it does not support mandating social distancing measures that would leave ‘middle seats’ empty.

Calls for social distancing measures on aircraft, according to the group, would fundamentally shift the economics of aviation by slashing the maximum load factor to 62 per cent.

Sticking with the decision to leave middle seats empty, IATA said, would amount to well below the average industry break-even load factor of 77 per cent. With fewer seats to sell, the body said unit costs would rise sharply.

IATA said air fares would need to go up dramatically—between 43 per cent and 54 per cent depending on the region just to cover costs.

The clearing house for over 290 global airlines however backed the wearing of face coverings for passengers and masks for crew while on board aircraft as a critical part of a layered approach to biosecurity to be implemented temporarily when people return to traveling by air.

IATA disclosed that evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low, stressing that mask-wearing by passengers and crew will reduce the already low risk, while avoiding the dramatic cost increases to air travel that onboard social distancing measures would bring.

IATA’s Director-General, Alexandre de Juniac in a media briefing in Geneva, Switzerland, said the safety of passengers and crew is paramount, stressing that the aviation industry is working with governments to re-start flying when this can be done safely.

His words: “Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low. And we will take measures—such as the wearing of face coverings by passengers and masks by crew—to add extra layers of protection. We must arrive at a solution that gives passengers the confidence to fly and keeps the cost of flying affordable. One without the other will have no lasting benefit.”

Listing the guidelines to reduce the spread of the disease via air travel, the IATA chief recommended mandatory face-coverings for passengers and masks for crew as one of several actions to reduce the already low risk of contracting COVID-19 on board aircraft.

He also recommended temperature screening of passengers, airport workers and travellers, boarding and deplaning processes that reduce contact with other passengers or crew, limiting movement within the cabin during flight.

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Other measures include more frequent and deeper cabin cleaning; and simplified catering procedures that lower crew movement and interaction with passengers.

“When proven and available at scale, testing for COVID-19 or immunity passports could also be included as temporary biosecurity measures,” he said.

He re-emphasized that IATA does not recommend restricting the use of the ‘middle seat’ to create social distancing, hinting that evidence, although limited, suggests that the risk of virus transmission on board aircraft is low even without special measures.

Moreover, even if mandated, he reiterated that keeping the ‘middle seat’ open would not achieve the recommended separation for social distancing to be effective.

According to him, most authorities recommend between one and two metres while the average seat width is less than 50 cm.

“The cabin environment naturally makes transmission of viruses difficult for a variety of reasons. That helps to explain why we have seen little occurrence of on board transmission. In the immediate term, our aim is to make the cabin environment even safer with effective measures so that passengers and crew can return to travel with confidence. Screening, face coverings and masks are among the many layers of measures that we are recommending. Leaving the middle seat empty, however, is not,” said de Juniac.

Nigerian experience/A case of DANA Air

In Nigeria, one of the domestic carriers, DANA Air, has informed passengers on resumption of flight operations of new seating arrangement on board the aircraft. Its Chief Operating Officer/ Accountable, Mr Obi Mbanuzuo, said the middle seat in aircraft aisle would be left unoccupied as part of social distancing.

He said the seating arrangement was aimed at giving passengers a sense of security.

“Majority of our aircraft are configured with mainly three seats in a row, on either side of the aisle, so when we resume flights anytime soon, we will keep the middle seats empty so passengers can sit on the window and aisle seats to ensure some physical distancing on board all our flights.”.

“This is just to give our guests some sense of security about their health and well-being when flying with us immediately after the pandemic.

“It will be for some time, while we continue to review feedback from our guests on their thoughts, but we believe it is what customers might like to see.

“Our first concern is the safety and well-being of our staff and customers and we have made firm arrangements to ensure that our thorough cleaning and disinfection programme continues.

“We are taking this seriously as we do not know how long this will last.”

It is unclear if extra health measures that will be put in place by other Nigerian carriers – Air Peace, Aero Contractors, Max Air, AZMAN Air, Overland Airways, and other carriers will introduce when they resume flight operations.

The Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) Director in charge of Consumer Protection Unit, Abdulahi Adamu said mandatory wearing of face mask for all passengers , airline crew and airport official at screening And boarding points at the terminal will be enforced when scheduled commercial flights resume.

Compulsory wearing of face mask for passengers and crew and other officials at the screening and boarding sections of the airport are part of new measures put in place to reduce spread of deadly virus.

Aviation security/border control personnel

Ahead of resumption of flight at airports nationwide, aviation security personnel and border control official – Nigeria Immigration Services (NIS), Nigeria Customs Services (NCS) already wear hand gloves and face mask as they profile foreigners evacuated from the country under the special flight category.

While keeping social distance and avoidance of body contact, they will continue with the practice in months ahead.

Ghana’s experience

A carrier based in Accra Ghana said it would introduce no mask no flight policy. Africa World Airlines (AWA) launched a broad based Covid19 safety Policy which includes Seat Spacing and Hand Sanitisers. The airline informed all passengers traveling domestically within Ghana that as per regulation, they must be in possession of a face mask that meets Ghana Health Service standards, as well as a personal container of hand sanitiser.

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The carrier said in a statement: “No food or drink will be permitted for consumption during the flight, and passengers will be required to remain in their assigned seats at all times. No passengers (other than children below 12) will be seated immediately next to each other in order to maintain social distancing.”

United States Jet Blue’s experience

In the United States, new measures have been introduced by some carriers including Jet Blue Airlines.

Jet Blue has become the first airline in the US to make face coverings and masks mandatory for passengers in the age of COVID-19.

Since May 4, travellers flying Jet Blue are required to wear a mask covering their mouth and nose throughout their journey from check-in to boarding, in-flight and deplaning. The rule exempts small children.

The face covering should fit snugly against the side of the face and be secured with ties or pear loops. The most effective barrier is a covering made with multiple layers of breathable fabric.

The new policy comes after the airline made masks mandatory among crew members, and after Air Canada announced that all air travellers would be required to wear face coverings as well.

To maintain social distancing on board the aircraft, JetBlue says it has been limiting the number of seats for sale and reviewing seat assignments.

United/Alaska/American Airlines policy

United, Alaska and American Airlines have likewise temporarily blocked off the middle seat, which could become a casualty of COVID-19’s impact on the travel industry.

This came amid calls by United States Democratic lawmakers called for federal action to mandate that all air travellers wear masks.

Currently, it is up to the airlines themselves to decide to require masks, and although most have made it a requirement for crew members, JetBlue and Frontier are the only U.S. airlines to announce they will require passengers to wear face coverings.

Last week, Senators Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) sent a letter to Department of Transportation (DOT) Sec. Elaine Chao and Health and Human Services (HHS) Sec. Alex Azar urging them to “immediately issue a rule requiring face masks for all individuals engaged in air travel.”

“In the absence of federal action, different airlines and airports have adopted conflicting policies that will undermine overall public health if they are not unified around a single, strong standard,” the lawmakers wrote.

Association of Flight Attendant’s position

The largest flight attendant union in the U.S., the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, sent a similar letter last week to the DOT and HHS.

“From the airport door to the air plane door, on the air plane, and then back out through the airport, we want people wearing face coverings in all those areas,” Sara Nelson, both a current flight attendant and president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO, said.

“That is what is recommended by the CDC to the general public when they are out in public, and that is exactly what should be happening in our airports and on our airplanes to help contain the spread of the virus.”

Welcome to the era of face-masked flying

Frontier Airlines announced last week that all passengers must wear face masks aboard planes starting May 8, 2020 to reduce the chance of spreading coronavirus and other infections, making it the second domestic airline to require masks, following a similar announcement this week by JetBlue.

Industry experts say they expect more airlines to follow suit as airlines, which has been devastated by the coronavirus, remodel business practices in hopes of persuading people to return to flying.

Southwest, the main carrier out of Sacramento said it is encouraging passengers to wear face masks and gloves on flights. A company official hinted earlier this week the airline soon could make that a requirement.

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Southwest also currently “invites” customers on its flights “to space out at comfortable distances to support social distancing.” That policy is manageable because most flights have few passengers. Airlines have begun looking at re-configuring or redesigning their seating to offer flyers more space.

American Airlines is expected to begin handing out sanitizing wipes, or gels, and face masks to flyers in May. Flight attendants are required to wear masks as of Friday.

The airline industry in the last month has lost 95 percent of its business, making it one of the hardest-hit in the country.

Airline industry officials, among them Sacramento airports chief Cindy Nichols, says airports and airlines are currently analysing what long term changes their industry must make to regain consumer confidence and to reduce the chances that flying might spread viruses.

Frontier Airlines continues to operate flights between Sacramento and Las Vegas three days a week, and plans to increase that to daily flights in June, according to airport officials. The airline recently suspended its Sacramento to Denver flights, but is expected to resume those by Memorial Day.

The airline announced last week that its face mask policy for passengers extends to the airline’s ticket counters, gate areas as well as on board aircraft.

Frontier flight crews have been wearing face masks since April 13

“We want our passengers to feel comfortable when flying with us by protecting themselves and their fellow travellers as we all navigate the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Barry Biffle, CEO of Frontier Airlines. “This new measure is aligned with CDC recommendations and those of many municipalities within the U.S. that include wearing a face covering when out in public.”

The airline also implemented a “health acknowledgment” policy in April, requiring passengers to certify they are not sick and that they checked their temperature before heading to the airport, and they will sanitize their hands before boarding.

The airline currently is blocking every other row of seats on flights through the first week of May.

European carriers’ experience

In Europe, Low-cost airline Wizz Air has confirmed its passengers will be required to wear masks on board its flights from now on.

The Hungarian operator joins Germany’s Lufthansa in introducing the policy, which is designed to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Passengers who do not bring a mask with them to the airport are going to be offered one for free.

Wizz Air recently announced plans to resume some of its routes from London Luton on 1 May, becoming one of the first European airlines to reintroduce services.

The company had initially said that only cabin crew would be required to wear masks on its flights – as well as gloves – so a catering service could still be provided.

A previous statement had added: “To help passengers and crew travel safely and worry-free, Wizz Air has introduced several additional security measures to support physical distancing during boarding and enhanced cleanliness on board.

“As part of the measures to protect the health of customers and crew, customers should check-in and make any purchases online, such as paying for additional bags, to reduce non-essential interaction at the airport.

“Wizz Air will continue its stringent daily cleaning schedule, with the entire aircraft being disinfected overnight, following official guidelines.”

The guidance on face masks has evolved over the course of the pandemic.

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