The airline industry has been particularly pummeled by the global pandemic as consumers sheltering in place have, by and large, eschewed both domestic and overseas air travel.
U.S. air travel was down 96 percent in April, according to CNN, as the notion of being stuck in a tight space packed with strangers and forcing you to breathe in recycled air lost its appeal.
And although Memorial Day weekend brought an uptick in air travel — more than 1.5 million people passed through security checkpoints at U.S. airports during the long weekend — 12.2 million flew during the same period in 2019, The Dallas Morning News reported.
What will it take to get people back into planes? Boeing and Airbus, the world’s two largest airline manufacturers, are working jointly to research what airlines’ new standard operating procedures ought to be to prevent COVID-19, according to The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). The goal is to support an industrywide push to curb the risks of airline travel and help consumers feel safe enough to take off once again.
WSJ said the project will involve collaboration between medical experts, engineers and academics to investigate and design new measures to prevent disease transmission on airplanes. On Boeing’s part, the company is developing computer models to simulate the cabin environment and help airlines get an advanced picture of the issues they could face. This will also create a safe canvas upon which to design possible solutions for curbing the virus’s spread in flight.
“We’re taking steps to better understand any potential risks,” a Boeing spokesman told WSJ.
Boeing is also considering offering research grants to develop new technologies to enhance in-flight safety through processes like using ultraviolet light as a disinfectant or putting antimicrobial coatings on frequently touched surfaces, WSJ reported.
Airbus engineers are in discussions with U.S. universities to research how the virus can spread in an airline and what methods can safely cut transmission, according to WSJ. Some potential solutions being considered are self-cleaning materials, a disinfectant that can last for five days and touchless devices in lavatories.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has also been working with Boeing, Airbus and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to both assess the risks of air travel and look at methods of mitigating the danger, according to WSJ.
The research is particularly important because consumers have evinced a great deal of trepidation about flying in the coronavirus era.
Especially difficult to overcome is how fundamentally incompatible air travel is with social distancing. While strong air filters and frequently replacing cabin air are effective at scrubbing pathogens, it’s unlikely they can do much to stop the disease’s spread if you happen to be sitting next to someone who’s sick, WSJ reported.
“Social distancing is impossible in an airplane,” Qingyan Chen, a Purdue University engineering professor who recently discussed the topic with Boeing, told the paper.
A requirement that passengers wear masks would have a very good chance of limiting contact exposure between passengers.
“If everyone’s wearing a mask, then there is very little that is getting out into the air,” said Linsey Marr, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech, which was contacted by Airbus for information on the subject, WSJ reported.
U.S. airlines have begun requiring passengers to cover their faces during flights, but insiders told WSJ that such a requirement can be difficult to enforce.
How often has COVID-19 actually been transmitted on airplanes so far? WSJ said the International Air Transport Association surveyed 18 major carriers and found that a handful of crew members have been infected on the job, although none of the cases involved passenger-to-passenger transmission. There were three episodes of suspected in-flight transmission from passengers to crew between January and March, and four cases in which pilots might have transmitted the disease to another pilot before, during or between flights.
Nonetheless, consumers remain concerned about in-flight infection. According to PYMNTS surveys, they’re unlikely to take the skies again until a vaccine is available or they’re given the all clear to travel from top public health officials.
One way or another, consumers are expecting airlines to help them feel safe while flying.