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Leaving, on a jet plane…

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel Asia…don’t know when I’ll be back again. Your Omicron-free sofa still outclasses an airline seat despite all the claims about cabin air quality. But let’s take a look.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Masked and ready in-flight

According to the American FAA, until 14 December 2021, a total of 4,072 episodes relating to 'unruly passengers' had to do with masks. This has become a universal problem in-flight

IN THE SPAN of a month, faster than you could begin to comprehend ‘covfefe’, we’ve come from OMG to Oh-Mi-Cron, a bad boy who may soon be immortalised in teen shorthand as OMC. Travel has been disrupted anew by a Covid variant with a transmissibility rate 70 percent higher than Delta. It has made speedy inroads into unvaccinated populations, young children, and healthcare workers.

Omicron – drawn from the Greek alphabet, as are Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta – may appear a benign muddled mutant, but it is no less disruptive than its predecessors. And there will be more variants to follow. As countries take remedial action in the form of booster shots, lockdowns and tightened immigration and health protocols, the few travellers gritting their teeth this fast tapering festive season, are right to look up at the skies in exasperation.

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‘What next?’ they might be asking the fickle Gods. But all eyes are on airlines now. Will my flight be cancelled? Is it sensible to fly? With American airports increasingly resembling Indian railway stations and exhausted passengers littering the floors, the real question is, ‘Is it safe to fly?’

The community infection-rate data is jaw dropping. Yet Gary Kelly, the CEO of Southwest Airlines made jaws sag further at a recent US Senate committee hearing when he defended cabin air quality by declaring cheerily, “I think the case is very strong that masks don’t add much, if anything.” American Airlines CEO Doug Parker who chimed in with a, “I concur,” speedily recanted as his airline rushed to assure travelers that he was referring only to in-cabin air quality, and not masks.

{According to the FAA there were 5,664 reports of unruly passengers until 14 December 2021. Of this number, 4,072 episodes had to do with masks...

Biden’s in-flight mask mandate be damned. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) there were 5,664 reports of unruly passengers until 14 December 2021. Of this, 4,072 episodes had to do with masks. These problems are not unique to the US.

At the International Air Transport Authority (IATA), Tim Colehan, the Assistant Director, Government and Industry affairs has a sanguine view of things. “Not wearing a mask is arguably no different to not wearing a seatbelt or not putting your laptop away,” he says, while recognising that the pandemic has made things more personal and confrontational.

There is some protection from flying fists. The Montreal Protocol of 2014 (better known as MP14) permits law enforcement authorities where an aircraft lands to claim jurisdiction over errant passengers. This goes beyond the Tokyo Convention of 1963 that had stipulated any prosecution would be left to the laws and agencies of the country where an aircraft was registered. Thirty-two countries have signed up to MP14, which has a way to go to catch up with Tokyo’s 187. But with the expected induction of the UK and the UAE, this protocol would represent over 30 percent of global passenger traffic.

Assuming passengers stop walloping each other 35,000ft aloft, is it safe to fly? Is the air clean?

It is often said the air in an aircraft cabin is cleaner than your average pub or gym or movie theatre. It is, but only when your plane is in the air. Parked or taxiing aircraft, and slow airport queues are not much better than the next scrum. But in the air a particular kind of magic happens.

The quality of the air you breathe depends on the rate of dispersal and direction of any pathogens that happen to be lurking around. The air in your average economy cabin is refreshed every three minutes or so and there is a pattern to the airflow.

Pre-combustion, hot, compressed ‘bleed’ air from the engines is directed through a process of cooling and humidification before being released into the cabin.

This fresh air gets mixed in with re-circulated cabin air in a roughly 50:50 ratio. This re-circulated cabin air in turn has been through a series of hospital-grade HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters that will have removed 99.97 percent of any viral or bacterial contamination. These filters catch any airborne particles with a diameter as small as 0.3 microns. Air from the toilets is evicted directly and does not re-circulate.

The bleed air has several purposes apart from oxygenation. Warm air is directed to the leading wing edges to help with de-icing and compressed air is used to drive various hydraulic systems.

Inside the cabin the airflow is vertical. Air is pushed down forcefully from ceiling inlets and sucked out through floor outlets. Minimising horizontal circulation is key to protecting passengers.

Widely considered to be the best aircraft when it comes to air quality are the A380 behemoth, the cutting edge Airbus A350 and its competitor, the B787 Dreamliner. The B787, however, draws fresh air directly through wing inlets and not through the engines, thereby avoiding any possibility of contamination, howsoever remote, from rogue engine fumes.

The B787 would be a winning choice for long-haul flights were it not for its nine-abreast seat configuration that cuts cushion width to just 17 inches (save for on some JAL aircraft) compared to the A350’s 18 inches. The Airbus A350 also has a nine abreast plan but offers a marginally wider fuselage and a five-decibel quieter ride (according to the manufacturer). Eighteen inches has been the industry standard for economy seats and major US airlines in the Eighties had an average cushion width of 19 inches.

With asymptomatic passengers and the occasional bloodcurdling sneeze, nowhere is truly bug-free but window seats are now your best friend. That could be the end of the business traveller and airline accountant favourite, the aisle seat, which now attracts usurious premiums. If someone is carrying a virus, the likelihood of possible spread is assumed to range within two seats on either side of that passenger and a row ahead and behind. The aisle is counted as a single seat width. Omicron may change this calculation.

Other advice remains bog standard. Don’t touch common surfaces, avoid the loo and bulkhead seats near the loo or near other gathering places like the galley, and wear a mask at all times (it will not affect your oxygen levels).

Your sofa at home still remains the comfiest and safest place to flop down in front of a decent television screen.

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