How safe is my plane? Flying in the time of COVID

An Air North Boeing 737-500 departs Vancouver International Airport February 20, 2020 (photo: Brett Ballah).

Worried what the risks of flying are due to the COVID-19 pandemic? You’re not alone. Some of our readers asked us to look at the risks of flying within Canada. After all, Ottawa has told everyone to stay home whenever possible and people arriving from outside the country to self-isolate for 14 days, so how could flying within Canada be any safer?

This article explores five of the most common questions we’ve been asked.

Best advice, stay home, but if you have to fly, here’s what you need to know.

It is important to note that the situation is constantly evolving, and it’s best to get the most accurate and up-to-date information from public health agencies.

Is it safe to fly?

There is no activity without risk and travelling by air is no exception. As a result of COVID-19, the government of Alberta warns that passengers, “should monitor their air travel even if it was limited to within Canada.”

Since February 28, Westjet has reported 19 flights where a passenger tested positive for COVID-19. Seven of those cases were aboard domestic flights. Air Canada, according to data from the Government of Alberta, has reported 10 affected flights, five of them domestic operations.

Airlines sell safety. If they aren’t safe, no onboard service, no discount fare will convince you to fly. Though the details vary, airlines have gone out of their way to reassure the public.

“Coronaviruses are easily eliminated by routine surface cleaning and sanitization,” said Dr. Jim Chung, Air Canada’s Chief Medical Officer in a video posted on the airline’s website. He emphasized that cleaning of high-touch areas – tray tables, toilets, and galleys – is done between each flight.

Westjet says it has “taken additional precautionary measures to expand and increase the frequency of our aircraft sanitization at our busiest bases,” including extra sanitizing agents. The airline has also removed everything but the safety card from seatbacks as a precaution.

Cleaning a Flair Boeing 737 (photo: Flair).

Flair Airlines has gone out of its way to reassure the public. The ultra low-cost carrier is sterilizing its aircraft at every station stop from tail to tip.

“We have up to 1,500 passengers in an airplane [in a day],” said Flair chief executive Jim Scott in an interview. “Our passengers were kinda saying ‘I don’t know, I sit down in a seat that was cleaned last night, but that was a long time ago.’ So what we said is, every time you sit down in a seat, that airplane has been sterilized. Everything you touch, the bins, the armrest, any hard surface, the washroom has all been sterilized.”

For those reasons, the International Civil Aviation Organization – an agency of the United Nations – says that “the current likelihood of contracting the virus while flying on flights is extremely low.”

What about airports, are they safe?

Airports, just like airlines, sell safety. And just like airlines, if passengers don’t feel safe at airports, they won’t travel.

All airports have increased cleaning, particularly of high-touch surfaces. Vancouver International, for instance, has contracted an “enhanced cleaning team” that can clean up to 18,000 square feet an hour in addition to their regular cleaning staff.

But that doesn’t necessarily make an airport safe. They are public facilities, and there are few restrictions on who can access terminal buildings. And it’s exceptionally difficult to maintain social distancing when you’re being crowded into a line.

Restaurants at Halifax International, for instance, have removed chairs so patrons can sit farther apart.

Perhaps Vancouver International Airport chief executive Craig Richmond put it best: “All I can say is if you don’t have to come to the airport, just like if you don’t have to leave your house for any reason, don’t do it.”

Are inter-provincial flights flying right now?

They are.

So far, only one scheduled airline, Porter, has announced it would cease operations later this week until June 1.

Air Canada has reduced its capacity by about 50%. But that’s measured in what are called available seat-kilometres, so larger planes flying long distances have a disproportionate impact on capacity. Most of Air Canada’s cuts have been on flights to Europe and Asia and relatively few in North America.

Westjet, on the other hand, on top of suspending all international and transborder service this week, expects to cut 50% of its capacity within Canada. On Wednesday, for instance, the airline has cancelled 155 flights, 141 of them – or 91% – on domestic routes.

Swoop and Flair are operating as usual within Canada.

Is the air on a plane safe?

All of the airlines use a system to refresh the air every two or three minutes with High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters which, in the words of Air Canada, “capture 99.9% of particulate from recirculated air in the aircraft cabin. This includes microbial organisms such as bacteria and viruses.”

Airlines are required to deny boarding to anyone who appears ill. But this is by no means a perfect system. Sitting within three rows of an infected person is considered close contact, and considered at risk for exposure, while anyone on a plane with an infected person aboard is advised to watch for symptoms for 14 days.

Do airplane seat belts, tray tables, and washrooms carry risk?

In a word, yes, though it could be argued that aircraft are among the cleanest places in the world right now.

As always, wash your hands often.

Dr. Chung FAQ from Air Canada on Vimeo.