Dar es Salaam. The fear of being infected by the new coronavirus aboard aircraft remains a major concern among travellers as countries, including Tanzania, reopen their airspaces.
However, experts allay the fears, stating that the risk of a viral infection in an aircraft is low.
This is especially provided that cabin air checking and physical/social distancing rules are strictly observed.
Qatar Airways which announced resumption of scheduled flights to and from Tanzania starting June 16 says it has implemented several changes ahead of getting airborne again.
These include introducing personal protective equipment (PPE) suits for cabin crews while on board, and modified services that reduce interactions between passengers and the crew in flight.
The airline’s chief executive officer, Akbar Al Baker, says that passengers safety is their top priority.
Travellers’ concerns include whether breathing in re-circulated air in the cabin can put a person at a greater risk of contracting Covid-19, a malady that has so far killed over 387,000 people across the world.
But, according to some experts, if the cabin air filters are well-maintained, the risk of contracting the disease while on a plane is low.
Commenting on the coronavirus fact check analysis by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism titled ‘Does the ‘recycled’ air on planes really put you at a high risk of infection?’ Shaheen Mehtar - chair of the education working group ‘Infection Control Africa Network - explains why the risk is low.
Mehtar says most modern aeroplanes use High Efficiency Particulate Air (Hepa) filters to clean the air inside - and that filtration systems are largely the same as those used in conventional operating theatres.
These filters are accepted by the International Air Transport Association (Iata), which sets standards for the airline industry.Iata says the Hepa filters can remove up to 99.9 percent of even extremely tiny particles of 0.1-to-0.3 microns in size.
The filters, according to Iata, clean the air, which is then returned to the cabin mixed with 50 percent clean air from outside, Iata says in a 2018 briefing paper.
A study published in the journal eLife titled ‘SARS-CoV-2’ (Covid-19) says the novel coronavirus is about 0.1 microns in diameter. In that case, Mehtar says, “Hepa filters are very efficient… Therefore, these will work (against) coronaviruses...”
But, commenting on the same topic, Ms Ana Rule - director of the Exposure Assessment Laboratories at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and her colleague, Ms Gurumurthy Ramachandra, give a word of caution.
“All the air inside an aircraft cabin is filtered using Hepa filters installed in the ventilation systems in planes, and some of this filtered air is recirculated back into the cabin.
However, the air in a cabin has to travel some distance and takes some time before it is filtered and recirculated,” Rule and Ramachandra explain.
“If a person next to you coughs or sneezes, some of the smallest particles will stay in the air - and will be captured by the ventilation system.
But, if you are very close to each other, you may inhale some particles before they are captured by the ventilation system.”
Additionally, they say, depending on whether the person was close to you or a ventilation vent for example larger particles of possibly virus containing droplets of saliva may land on surfaces such as armrests or tray tables.
“But the good thing is that those smaller particles also easily follow the airflow, so having a ventilation system that is pulling air from the cabin will “pull” those particles out of the air.
The air full of particles, and some viruses, then pass through Hepa filters and are cleaned and then returned to the cabin mixed with 50 percent clean air from outside, they explain.
Under such circumstances, a Dar es Salaam-based aviation expert with over 40 years experience in the industry, Mr John Njawa, told The Citizen that airlines will have to focus on reassuring fliers because the Covid-19 pandemic may have created uncertainty and phobia among fliers and would-be passengers in general that crowded spaces are unsafe in public transportation.
He says the most important question to address is working to assure would be travellers that health and preparedness have been made a top priority - and they actually work.
“Organizations will have to ensure that they can provide safety and security to their customers beyond what they had been doing previously,” says a ex-Tanzania Civil Aviation Authority (TCAA) safety regulation director.
For his part, the Air Tanzania Company Limited’s man-aging director, Ladislaus Matindi - whose airline resumed commercial operations weeks ago - says that, “First of all, I have to say that an aircraft has a better air system, and it’s safer by design... However, on sanitation, we have gone the extra mile to make sure we disinfect every area so as to enhance safety.”
Yesterday, when announcing the June 15 service schedule, the Quatar Airways boss, Al Baker, said “Passengers will still be required to wear face coverings in flight.
Also, the air carrier recommended travellers to bring their own face masks for comfort purposes,” the airline’s release further reads.
For its part, the World Health Organization (WHO) says air travel exposes passengers to a number of factors that may have an impact on their health.
WHO also says that some medical conditions and life-style choices may affect the safety and comfort of air travel and should, therefore, be considered before planning a trip by air.
“Transmission of infection may occur among passengers who are seated in the same area of an aircraft - usually as a result of an infected individual coughing or sneezing, or by touch…” WHO says in its Air Travel Advice report.