Random Thoughts – Randocity!

COVID and Air Travel

Posted in airline, best practices, business, travel by commorancy on May 5, 2020

airline-overhead-panelAir travel is something we sometimes find as necessary. The problem with air travel and viruses is that the airline industry was (and still is) ill prepared to handle a medical crisis like COVID. Sure, they’re sanitizing surfaces on planes, but that’s a limited response. That doesn’t mean the airlines aren’t trying. Let’s explore the pitfalls of air travel in the new post-COVID world.

Airline Sanitizing Efforts and Virus Safety

In an effort to quell fears and get people traveling, airlines have been making more and more concessions towards COVID. For example, they are more frequently wiping down surfaces of panels touched by passengers, they’ve removed communal magazines from seat pockets, they are seating people apart in a small token way, they are sanitizing the airplanes relatively rigorously between flights, but that doesn’t mean these efforts will be fruitful for passengers and crew.

COVID has been proven to linger on surfaces for sometimes days, depending on the surface material. WebMD states:

The coronavirus can live for hours to days on surfaces like countertops and doorknobs. How long it survives depends on the material the surface is made from.

WebMD then gives a list of materials and number of days COVID can live on that surface:

Metal
Examples: doorknobs, jewelry, silverware
5 days

Wood
Examples: furniture, decking
4 days

Plastics
Examples: packaging like milk containers and detergent bottles, subway and bus seats, backpacks, elevator buttons
2 to 3 days

Stainless steel
Examples: refrigerators, pots and pans, sinks, some water bottles
2 to 3 days

Cardboard
Examples: shipping boxes
24 hours

Copper
Examples: pennies, teakettles, cookware
4 hours

While copper isn’t commonly found in our environment, except for coinage, we do regularly encounter plastic, wood and metals. In fact, these three materials primarily comprise what airplane seats, and indeed much of what all airplanes, are made of.

For this reason, sanitization efforts within an airplane are limited. There’s just no way to spend enough time to get into every nook and cranny of a plane’s surfaces to wipe it all down before the next flight. What this means for you is to not touch any portion of the plane that you don’t have to. If you do touch a plane’s surface, make sure to use hand sanitizer immediately afterward or head to the lavatory and wash your hands, making sure to use the towel to open the door and toss the towel on the floor or ask the attendant to take it from you as they are likely wearing gloves.

If you have disposable gloves to use while in the airport and while boarding, keep them on until in your seat and then remove them only when you’re ready to consume any food. The biggest problem in planes isn’t really surfaces, though. So, have a mask ready to use while flying on a plane.

To that end, I’d recommend refraining from consuming any food while on board your flight as that means you’ll have to remove your mask to do so. You should keep your mask on for the duration of the flight. Here’s the primary reason why airline sanitization efforts are most likely to fail…

Recirculated Air

Let’s get directly to the heart of every airline’s biggest in-flight problem. Commercial airliners are designed and built to recirculate air throughout the cabin. It is this closed recirculated air flow system that is at the heart of why no matter what airlines do to distance people or enforce the wearing of masks or even wipe down surfaces, it will never be enough.

Why? Because recirculated air recirculates cough and sneeze particles throughout the entire plane’s cabin. If a cough can travel 6 feet, it can travel far enough to reach the intake vent of the aircraft, which can then spread throughout the rest of the plane. It can even deposit these particles on the ducting of the plane which can come loose later, even while still active. It’s doubtful that airlines are scrubbing or disinfecting the airplane’s internal ducts between flights. There’s just not enough time.

What that means is, distancing, masks and disinfectant won’t matter if even ONE contagious person boards an airliner, but who also shows no obvious symptoms. This means that even one cough from that person could spread the virus throughout the entire plane, causing additional infections regardless of distancing. You could even be sitting an entire fuselage away from that person and still become infected simply due to recirculated air. That’s the danger of recirculated air. It’s also a design problem that needs to be solved.

Design Changes

Since the arrival of COVID-19, there has been no time for aircraft design changes to be implemented to offer safer measures against viral propagation. What this means to would-be travelers is that the airplanes which are presently in service are the same planes that were in service before COVID-19.

This leaves any passenger open for infection regardless of face masks, distancing measures or any other in-plane disinfection. In fact, this recirculated air system leaves the entire plane open for infection. How can this be resolved? By making specific design alterations to every commercial aircraft’s air conditioning system.

Instead of recirculating the in-cabin air, there are two effective choices. One is more complicated than the other, but both are not without risks to the plane.

Here’s the first. Cabin air can be expunged from the plane in the rear. Fresh (cold) air from the outside can intake from the front of the plane. The air is then warmed by passing near the engines and blown into the plane at an appropriate temperature, making sure not to mix the fresh incoming air with any exhaust or other air contaminants. In fact, the air intake should also be run through a series of HEPA filters to ensure any particulate or allergens are removed.

Here’s the fundamental problem with this approach. At high altitudes, the outside air will be thin and hold less oxygen. This means the need to supplement the air system with additional oxygen and other gases to ensure a proper mix of air for the entire cabin while attempting to use outside air. This requires planes to carry oxygen systems to perform this air mixing. Otherwise, you’ll have a lot of hypoxic passengers and attendants. These systems add more weight to the plane.

The second alternative is UVC treatment. This one is probably the more practical of these two ideas. According to this Quora article, it is possible to treat air within seconds and achieve a 99% disinfection rate. That means it would be possible to move the air through a long series of transparent ducts surrounded by UVC light. When it emerges from the far end of the duct, the air would be disinfected for reuse within the cabin. This solution is probably the most optimal solution for commercial airlines to retrofit onto their planes.

While UVC is a great solution for disinfecting air, it doesn’t mean that plane (and you as a passenger) won’t remain at risk from other sources around you. It does mean that air coming out of that tiny round vent above your head is clean of pathogens. It doesn’t mean your seatmate can’t cough in your general direction or that you can’t pick it up from your tray table.

Why recirculated air?

Airlines reuse air strictly because of the high altitude (less oxygen rich) and cold outside air such that recirculating interior air makes the most sense and is least costly to achieve. It’s more problematic and expensive for an aircraft to heat outside air, but also enrich it with oxygen to mimic ground oxygen levels. The design choice was then to recirculate ground air using a closed system for the duration of the flight. That choice, unfortunately, didn’t take into account the ease of pathogen transmission.

On the ground, oxygen levels are about 20%. Above 30,000 feet (5.68 miles), oxygen levels drop below 6.9%. Many jetliners cruise at an altitude above 43,000 feet (8.14 miles above the ground). At these low oxygen levels, humans will become starved for oxygen. It’s called hypoxia. Hypoxia leads to all sorts of problems such as:

  • Confusion
  • Euphoria
  • Nausea
  • Tunnel Vision
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Rapid Heart Rate
  • Disorientation
  • Fainting

This means that attempting to repopulate the air from outside of a plane requires additional design considerations including proper heating and oxygenation. Carrying oxygen mix canisters that can resupply oxygen into the plane’s air for an extended period of time means more weight in the plane. UVC lighting may or may not be the less weighty solution.

I’d suggest one of the two above ideas for reducing an airplane’s ability to transmit pathogens throughout a plane. However, UVC light must be fully blocked from accidental exposure to humans while in operation. Any exposure to UVC light for even just a few seconds can be enough to cause eye or skin problems. Disinfecting air by using a UVC light system would need to be mounted and used in the bowels of the plane where these lights are fully contained and cannot be accidentally happened upon by humans. It also means these lights must remain in operation throughout the duration of the flight.

I have no idea how long these lights last, though some speculate these lamps last as long as 12 months at which time their disinfection power diminishes. That means a regular maintenance schedule must apply to replacing these lamps when they are close to out of date. It also means backup set of lamps in case one set of lights fails to illuminate during the flight. Of course, many airlines may treat such a UVC disinfectant system as non-critical. Meaning, if the system is broken, it won’t prevent the plane from taking off and flying… thus this leaves passengers right back at square one, with no in-plane protection from pathogens.

Whichever choice that airlines choose make to their air conditioning system, it will need to be made before airplanes can be deemed safe from transmitting pathogens within the confines of their closed air systems.

Airlines and COVID

people inside airplane

Airlines face huge problems simply stemming from fewer and fewer people flying during the COVID pandemic. With this post COVID era and fewer seats occupied, airlines will balk at paying for expensive additions to their planes. They can barely afford to keep their airline afloat, much less add a new expensive critical system to stem the tide of COVID aboard their planes.

This means that the government would have to step in and mandate such a system be installed on older planes and that all new planes under construction must contain an air UVC disinfectant system before it goes into service.

Governmental health authorities would also need to deem such an airliner’s internal disinfectant system as critical such that the plane cannot takeoff if the system is non-functional.

Today, commercial jets are a haven for pathogen transmission. Of the last 20 flights I have taken, at least 85% of them have led me to a cold or flu within 10 days of that flight. You can even hear the people on the flight sneezing and coughing all along the way.

Since airlines have no way to restrict sick passengers from boarding, the airline must to consider other options in protecting its passengers from infection while aboard long flights.

The new post-COVID reality within the airline industry is to block seats off and keep passengers apart. However, this only does so much considering the distance between seats is far less than 6 feet. Unless you place only 1 person per every 3 rows in addition to installation of UVC air disinfectant systems on all jetliners, there is no way airlines are doing enough to protect their passengers from COVID. Masks only go so far. Even then, people will take them off mid-flight to drink, eat and go to the bathroom. The effectiveness of a mask won’t work on long-haul flights.

On one hour flights where food and drink is not supplied and people are required to wear their masks the entire time, this may work. For 4, 5 and 6 hour flights across country or 11-13 hour flights across the world, other measures need to be taken to limit exposure, including in-flight air UVC disinfectant systems.

Flying Today

If you choose to fly in a post-COVID world, and someone aboard your flight is COVID infected, but not showing symptoms, you could find that you have incidentally contracted COVID from that flight. Be sure to read your airline ticket stub carefully, though. I’m quite sure that airlines have rewritten and updated their terms and conditions to indemnify themselves from all claims arising out of their use of air recirculating systems on board their airplanes. This leaves you firmly responsible for your health while captive aboard a commercial jetliner. You likely won’t be able to make any claims against that airline, even though it was their jet that was at fault for infecting you.

You may or may not be able to get COVID insurance, though. You should check with your travel insurance carrier to determine their rules. Many travel insurance carriers exclude a pandemic as part of insurance claims… again, leaving you on your own. Basically, you travel at your own risk. Should you become infected even through no fault of your own and even if you can trace it back to negligence of the airline itself, you may have no recourse.

Your best bet, then, is to avoid air travel until such time as the airline industry is willing to accept some measure of responsibility for each passenger’s health while being held captive aboard their planes… by updating their planes to add an in-flight UVC disinfecting system to their closed recirculated air system.

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