Which COVID-related health and safety practices will airlines keep post-pandemic?

August 7, 2021, 2:00 PM UTC

Before COVID-19, airplanes seemed like grimy containers for passengers to kick off their shoes, cough freely, and seemingly disregard others on board. Now, it’s nearly impossible for that behavior to play out. Airlines have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure the health and safety of crew members and passengers. As travel picks up speed and many restrictions loosen, what’s the future of cleanliness aboard: immaculate, or the Wild, Wild West, as it once was?

Health organizations discourage gatherings in confined, closed spaces for more than 15 minutes. So, naturally, traveling on an airplane goes against those recommendations. However, over the past year, airlines have integrated complex, multilayered protections to reduce transmission risks in such an environment. In fact, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) showed that only 44 out of 1.2 billion passengers contracted COVID-19—thought to be traced back to a flight—from March to October 2020. These statistics, among much research, have concluded it is safer to fly on a plane than conduct activities in other indoor places, such as a grocery store or restaurant.

The most significant contributions to this are masks and robust air filtration. Proper airflow reduces transmission risk substantially. On flights—despite being near others for long periods—constant fresh and filtered airflow is shown to be an important safety factor. The New York Times recently designed an in-depth simulation that thoroughly exhibits how air particles distribute on planes, and how filtration systems keep aerosol distribution low.

Delta overhauled its cleanliness and safety efforts through partnerships with Mayo Clinic, Emory University, and Reckitt, the makers of Lysol. Its new “Delta CareStandard” program launched in June 2020, and since the onset of COVID, the company has implemented 100 new protocols, including installing industrial-grade HEPA filters. On Delta flights, the air is refreshed 10 to 30 times per hour (every two to six minutes). This is more frequent than most public indoor spaces.

Filters such as this, which are now seen on major airlines—including Southwest, Qatar Airways, American Airlines, and more—are also used in hospital operating rooms and extract more than 99.9% of particles, including viruses. Moreover, Delta’s filtering systems on the ground pump outside air into our jet bridges and parked aircraft, resulting in a 40% reduction in air particles.

Members of Delta’s line maintenance crew disinfect the surfaces of the cabin including tray tables, seat backs, and in-flight entertainment screens in a Boeing 757 in Atlanta on March 6, 2020. The sanitizing solution is the same one used in hospitals nationwide.
Chris Rank for Rank Studios

In addition, enhanced cleaning of aircrafts between flights and at the end of each day is now standard practice throughout the industry. Intrinsically, some changes made by airlines will stay. Others will depend on the state of COVID and its variants.

In the U.S., the TSA planned on relinquishing masks on public transportation on May 11, 2021. However, because of the rise in Delta variant cases, the rule will remain through Sept. 13. When the United Kingdom lifted mask mandates on July 19, British Airways, Ryanair, and EasyJet kept mask requirements. While federal mandates helped protect companies from unruly customers who refuse to follow the rules, the airlines saw the impact of masks and stuck to mandates regardless. Qatar Airways believes masks are likely to remain a requirement for its passengers for the foreseeable future.

According to IATA, which represents 290 airlines globally, travelers are frustrated with convoluted COVID-19 protocols, including confusing travel rules, testing requirements, and high test costs. In May 2021, IATA surveyed 4,700 travelers in 11 markets and concluded that most air travelers are confident about air travel safety, and 83% support mask-wearing in the near term. Ultimately, the majority believes the mask requirement should be ended as soon as possible, despite studies like Harvard Aviation Public Health Initiative’s (APHI) two-parter showing that the risk of infection onboard a full aircraft with everyone wearing a mask is less than 1%.

Ultimately, the flight crew can’t babysit every passenger to ensure they follow basic hygiene and safety practices. But some, like Qatar Airways, which was recently awarded the top spot on AirlineRatings.com’s “Airline Excellence Awards,” have made things easier. During the pandemic, they provided passengers with complimentary disposable face shields and a protective kit with a single-use surgical face mask, large disposable powder-free glove, and alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Other airlines are committed to new standards on and off the plane, as well. Among Delta’s 100 items, it installed hand sanitizer stations and antimicrobial lavatory lighting, contactless payment technology onboard, wipes to clean customer-facing areas at airports and on aircraft, and so much more.

“Cleanliness is an important part of our culture, and we are stepping up to the challenge of surpassing our own high standards,” said Jonathan Litzenberger, the managing director of Delta’s Global Cleanliness strategy. “We’re expanding our reputation for cleanliness that we cemented last year to maintain and improve the level of care we are known for. Delta’s commitment is to continue to lead the industry when it comes to clean, giving customers the confidence to fly safely with Delta.”

Everyone is living in the pandemic in different ways. And that continues to evolve and remain unpredictable, as does the virus. How airlines will choose to maintain their standards will vary, but it is crucial that passengers patiently adhere to cleanliness too, not just for themselves but for fellow travelers and crew who continue to make travel possible.

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