Is it safe to fly again? Aviation expert weighs risks during COVID-19

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As COVID-19 vaccinations begin to gain momentum, lockdown-weary people across the world are hoping to fly again, but this brings to question how safe it is to book flights during the pandemic? Al Arabiya English spoke to aviation specialist and UAE industry veteran Gabriel Melikian to discuss the risks involved in air travel during these unprecedented times.

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When it comes to flying, passengers are concerned with the transmission of the virus, but following several lockdowns, in addition to the pandemic itself, there has been a considerable impact on flight safety protocols.

These include: the maintenance of aircrafts grounded when the travel industry shut down; ensuring pilot proficiency and maintaining adequate air quality within the aircraft.

Melikian explained to Al Arabiya English why these risks are important to consider.

Aircraft maintenance

“We’re all anxious to go on holiday to visit different countries and meet with friends and relatives, but because of the pandemic, the industry came to a standstill and airlines had to store mothball/cocoon aircrafts,” he said. “Aircrafts are high-value assets to maintain. Airlines obviously couldn’t just throw them away, they had to put them in storage and what happened was that many airlines chose to store them in America, more specifically the Arizona desert.”

The Arizona desert’s climate is very dry making it a relatively suitable place to store aircrafts to prevent corrosion, but Melikian warned that this can pose a problem too, as all aircrafts have to be well maintained, even during storage and before entering back to service again.

Storing aircrafts is a significant undertaking with huge costs for the airlines. According to the Financial Times, it can cost up to $30,000 per plane, depending on how much maintenance is needed.

“To bring all those assets back again to make them operational in a safe manner takes a lot of time. Each aircraft would take a minimum of two weeks to achieve operational status. Once all the maintenance and necessary safety checks have been carried out, the aircraft must go through the process of the annual airworthiness certificate which proves to the civil aviation authorities that the aircraft is safe to fly- the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) is particularly stringent when it comes to this,” added Melikian.

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Pilot qualification and proficiency checks

Melikian explained that pilots go through extensive training and examination to ensure that passengers they fly are always in safe hands.

A pilot flying an aircraft. (Unsplash,  Kristopher Allison)
A pilot flying an aircraft. (Unsplash, Kristopher Allison)

In order to ensure this, pilots need to undergo an aeromedical examination on an annual or bi-yearly basis (depending on age), plus pilot proficiency checks to ensure they are abreast with current operational procedures and aircraft systems which is often done in real flight time or via flight simulations where the facility is available. Pilots also go through line-checks which are conducted to make sure that they are familiar with specific flight routes.

“Each aircraft will have a minimum of two sets of crew members plus standby pilots who are consistent with each other to make sure that they are up to standard at all times and are familiar with the industry’s new developments,” he said.

Training requirements are greater with new recruits because the process of maintaining high standards is vital during the pandemic when all airline assets need to get aligned.

“Experienced pilots who have been in the industry for a long time are coming to an age whereby they need to be released and replaced with new candidates and that by itself is a challenge because of the different types of aircrafts and the different qualifications needed for each one,” he explained.

“Safety is paramount. Not only because of COVID-19, but also because of flight safety as a whole.”

Air quality

Aircraft are known to cycle the cabin air in and out of the plane every two to three minutes (on average) and does this very effectively. Contrary to popular belief, the air filtration system is well-equipped to deal with the transmission of infectious viruses, including COVID-19.

An aircraft isle during a flight. (Unsplash, Gerrie van der Walt)
An aircraft isle during a flight. (Unsplash, Gerrie van der Walt)

Aircraft air quality is often safer than those found in other indoor environments, Melikian explained, as most of the industry use High-Efficiency Particulate Absorbing (HEPA) filters.

“The rush for people wanting to go on holidays in itself will have created abnormal waiting times at airports which prolongs the passenger’s journey time and therefore increases the chances of virus transmission,” he said.

He added that greater risk seems to lie in airports, which have very little control over passengers arriving from other countries, especially those with less compliance in virus containment. Social distancing, people checking in that aren’t vaccinated and those that are asymptomatic is happening in countries that don’t have strict COVID-19 control guidelines in place.

‘New normal’

The ‘new normal’ for the aviation industry can entail less hub flying and more direct flights to mitigate the risks associated with virus transmissions at airports, and to reduce travel expenses for airlines and individuals.

“In the past, airlines used to stop at two locations to pick up passengers en route to a destination. Now, with operating new generation more fuel-efficient aircrafts, hub flying becomes more expensive,” said Melikian.

He added that in order to make flights more efficient and economically viable, planes carry enough fuel to fly to the destination safely while generating enough revenue for the airline, he revealed.

Until unified vaccination certificates are issued and travel bans and restrictions are eased, long haul flights will seldom be able to be filled to capacity, so short-haul destinations and the use of, small to medium-sized airplanes, will become more prevalent, Melikian said.

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