Just how safe are you on a plane during the Covid-19 pandemic? An expert weighs in
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As South Africa begins to open its economy and ease its lockdown – one of the most stringent in the world – local airlines are looking forward to resuming business and contributing to the repair of the economy.
With infection numbers still on a sharp upward trajectory and with no end in sight, the risks of becoming infected through being in a close, confined space with others still pose a significant risk to passengers, airline staff and airport staff, if stringent infection control measures are not being followed.
Emma Corder, Managing Director of the industrial cleaning products and services company Industroclean, said that travellers should expect a different experience from what they are used to when next hopping aboard a commercial airliner.
“Pre-flight temperature checks and the use of masks will now be mandatory.," she said.
She said although modern commercial passenger jets are fitted with the same quality of air filtration system that is commonly used in hospitals (HEPA), and are in theory, safer than other crowded public spaces, health experts warn that the risk of infection is still present as passengers could potentially inhale each other’s droplets before they are carried away from the cabin by the ventilation system.
"The risk of cross-contamination is especially strong in adjacent rows of seating. While most people are now aware that the virus is spread through droplets in the air, many don’t realise that it can spread from a surface to a person.
“The conditions in crowded spaces such as planes and buses present unique challenges of airflow and proximity so cleaning methodology and competencies are crucial, as is the use of appropriate chemicals and equipment," she said.
For industrial cleaning companies, this means a thorough knowledge of the ‘science’ of cleaning, including eliminating the different types of pathogens (viruses, bacteria, spores, etc.), cleaning methodologies and cleaning agents like disinfectants and the types of cloth to be used.
For airlines and other public transport companies, this means taking responsibility for infection control and hygiene by implementing strict hygiene protocols and employing reputable cleaning companies that have the necessary competencies.
Corder said that a good cleaning company will be aware of the importance of a stepwise methodology to clean and the use of a colour-coded system.
She also said that a ‘ranked’ approach is also important for minimising the spread of pathogens. “On an aeroplane seat, for example, the tray table should be cleaned before high touchpoint surfaces like the armrest or the remote because people touch those surfaces, leaving particles on them which could cause infection”.
Corder cautioned against the use of disinfecting spray tunnels and fogging as she believes that these do not work and could have adverse health effects. “These chemicals could cause severe allergies and other health conditions and are not recommended by the WHO”, she said.
Internationally, some prominent airlines have initiated fumigation with a chemical fog before every flight." However, studies suggest that UltraViolet light may be a more effective solution to area cleansing in between flights, and testing is currently underway to determine whether this method presents other risks and side effects to human health.
“If airlines are to regain public confidence in the age of the Covid-19 pandemic, passengers need to have a mindset of collective responsibility and be just as vigilant about hand-washing and seat-wiping as professional cleaners are with their protocols and best-practices. Systems - such as colour-coding for different risk areas help simplify complex cleaning procedures, which need to be meticulously thorough,”, she added.