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Once sensible to fly, is it safe?

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With flights starting to operate once more and certain European countries opening up, with the possibility of ‘Air Bridges’ (i.e. reciprocal non-quarantine arrangements) between some, the possibility of heading off on an overseas break is starting to become a reality.

In our country by country summaries, we go into your likely experience once you get there, you can make an informed decision as to whether or not a trip is a sensible choice for you. However, a very legitimate question remains just the other side of that choice: is the journey to get there safe?

Of course, we are talking specifically about air travel which, I think, breaks down into two elements: at the airport and on board. For an overview you might like to have a look at what BA are doing.

At the airport

Current advice seems to be to get to the airport two hours in advance for short-haul, three for long. No change there then.

Once there, you will be required to wear a mask throughout.

You will be encouraged/obliged to have an e-boarding pass to minimise contact on the way through security to airside.

You will be encouraged/obliged to check as much luggage as possible in order to smooth the journey both through security and onto the plane. Most major airports are already set up for largely contactless passage with scanners for passports, boarding passes and even facial recognition cameras. Saying that, I’m not sure that tallies with mask wearing. Do they recognise our noses & chins or is it all in the eyes? I hope not because my eyes are currently in danger of being buried under increasingly unkempt hair but I digress.

Once airside, I believe you can take your mask off when seated for a meal or drink so really it’s about wearing the mask as you navigate through the space. Some form of remote food/drink ordering system will be in place, something Wetherspoons had in place years ago. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether it’s preferable to eat at a ‘Spoons, go hungry or smuggle a scotch egg inside your facemask (something which would almost certainly throw off facial recognition software).

Moving to departure gates, again this will be presumably more self-service than is currently the case so scan passport and e-boarding pass as you move into the lounge. I presume they won’t want to hold people in those glassed in pre-boarding ‘pens’ so will flow people directly onto the plane.

Lack of hand luggage should mean we avoid the scrum for overhead lockers. That’s a welcome change and should mean that boarding the plane can be a much more relaxed experience – who knows, they might even start loading window/middle/aisle seas in that order. That’s a thing Latam have been doing, very sensibly, in Chile for years.

On board

Most carriers are not leaving middle seats empty. They are requiring you to keep your mask on throughout the flight. Disposable masks last approximately four hours so you might need more than one. Saying that, it would be better if you can take a reusable one which can be rinsed out at the end of each day, it’s going to be smart to have one to hand for occasional use during your trip.

Whether or not you have to put your hand up to go to the loo seems to depend on the airline but I think it’s smart to go before you board if possible. Cleaning regimes on board are increased, including disinfection of key surfaces before flights.

I will personally be carrying a small tube of alcohol rub and a pack of tissues with which to wipe down armrests, tray table and window blinds when I first sit down.

So those are the things we are in control of. What about the things we are not? Most obviously cabin air quality.

Air quality

This is really what it’s all about. We are in control of contact points and can be sensible and cautious about those and wash hands frequently. What we can’t do is control the air that we breathe and that’s a real worry for a tightly enclosed space like a plane.

Everything we have been told to do during the pandemic runs contrary to sitting in a small tin can in the sky breathing the same air as someone bang next to us. But here’s the thing, the air quality on board is exceptional. There’s lots of myths out there – probably the most enduring is the idea that they put the good air up front and then let it slowly drift along into economy class to let the peasants breathe the leftover fug.

Fake news – as debunked by this splendid article by a commercial pilot.

Cabin air is circulated from top to bottom. There is near zero air share between rows. Even laterally there will be very little exchange, partly because of masks but mainly because of the speed of air flow.

Air is completely changed within an aircraft (I’m assuming Boeing or Airbus here, if you have a Lear Jet I can’t help you with information though of course, if you want a holiday, please call) every two to three minutes. That compares to every 20 minutes or so in an ordinary office.

So that’s one thing, you have rapidly changing air. Some of that is fresh, some isn’t. It’s a blend in order to maintain even temperature – you probably wouldn’t want them to open the window to let is a blast of fresh air at 10,000m because it’s very cold.

The fresh air is as clean as it can be because it’s from the clouds. The recycled air would be a concern, if it weren’t for the HEPA filters.

Now this is where I ended up down a rabbit hole which delightfully ended with a beauty of an equation on page 10 of a NASA report, titled: Submicron and Nanoparticulate Matter Removal by HEPA-Rated Media Filters and Packed Beds of Granular Materials.

The formula is enough to give anyone a headache. I’m not going to even pretend to know what it means so obviously I skipped to the conclusion: ‘HEPA-rated media provides superior performance for removing virtually 100% of particulates’

What’s a HEPA filter?

It’s a High-Efficiency Particulate Air filter and is fitted to all modern aircraft, and operating theatres. You can get a sense of where they are and what they do from Airbus.

HEPA filters are designed to trap particles 0.01 microns / 10 nanometres and above.

A nanometre is a billionth of a metre. A single strand of human DNA has a diameter of 2.5 nanometres so four of them buddied up wouldn’t make it through. Your fingernails grow at a nanometre each second so 10 seconds of your fingernail would get filtered out. It’s mind-boggling.

The virus which causes Covid 19 has a diameter of 125 nanometres. So if the HEPA filter is designed to trap anything the size of a marble or above, Covid is a ping pong ball. It’s just not going to get through.

Of course, HEPA filters are not 100% effective but they are required to be 99.95% (EU rules) or 99.97% (US) effective, and tested at those levels. I’m guessing the 5/10,000 particles larger than 10 nanometres which form the EU’s permitted margin of error are likely to 11 or 12 nanometres rather than some Covid sized truck making it through the filter.

So there you have it…the cleanest air you are ever likely to breathe (unless you happen to be a surgeon) is on board the plane. Of course, surface transmission is possible but that’s a risk which can be effectively mitigated both by you and the airlines.

Please don’t read this piece as a Pollyanna-ish call for everyone to hop on planes and buy holidays from us. It’s not, you’ll decide you are comfortable with the idea of travelling when the time is right for you. Hopefully this article helps you make a more informed decision when that time comes.

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