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How safe is flying in the time of COVID-19?

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

I was supposed to fly out of Manila tomorrow, Aug. 28, to join an 11.5-hour, government-chartered flight to Beirut on a 370-seater aircraft.

When I learned about the trip, I spent days researching the risks of traveling at this time of a pandemic. I interviewed aviation experts and health workers on how much risk I would face if I decide to join the flight, and here’s what I gathered.

Inside the plane

In the context of being infected with the coronavirus disease 2019 or COVID-19, the plane is safer than most of us may think.

This is because of aircraft HEPA filters. HEPA is short for High Efficiency Particulate Air, not hepatitis as others might think. The filters clean the cabin air of viruses, bacteria and impurities with 99.99 percent efficacy every two to three minutes.

The same type of filters are used in hospitals.

Can the filters capture COVID-19?

The good news is that coronaviruses, which are round-like in shape with club-like spikes, is approximately 0.125 micron in diameter and  fall within the particle-size range that HEPA filters capture with extraordinary efficiency — almost 100 percent, says a NASA study.

The aircraft filters purify the air every two to three minutes. How does it work?

“Airflow inside an aircraft travel downward. It then enters the floor vents and passes through the HEPA filters and mixes with fresh air from outside the aircraft. The resulting purified air is infused back into the cabin by way of air outlets and individual vents. This whole process takes two to three minutes,” PAL spokesperson Cielo Villaluna explained to me when I asked about PAL’s own safety procedures on board.

Another precautionary measure is the intensive cleaning of aircraft surfaces before and after every flight utilizing high-grade, eco-friendly cleaning agents, she said.

The caveat

The not-so-good news is that this does not necessarily mean you will not catch the virus because, based on my readings, it’s less clear whether a HEPA filter would be able to catch that tiny, tiny virus at that exact moment before it reaches you, say for example, when an infected passenger next to you sneezes or coughs.

However, here are precautions that should be taken with utmost discipline.

Ryan Lianko, head nurse at the COVID-19 ward of the Philippine Children’s Medical Center advised me to wear a mask — preferably an N95 — a face shield and eyewear to protect my eyes for the whole duration of the trip. For an 11.5-hour flight, that’s a whole lot of caboodle, but between discomfort and staying alive, I’d choose life of course.

The problem, however, is when I eat or drink. An aviation expert said I should just eat before my trip so I don’t have to take off my mask and eat during the flight.

But Ryan said I can eat as long as I don’t do it at the same time when other passengers near me are eating. I should only eat when they are wearing their masks, he said.

He also advised me to take a window seat so there would be no other passengers on the other side, and that I should constantly disinfect and sanitize my area.

Commercial flights already leave their middle aisles empty as an added precaution and require passengers to wear their masks at all times.

I know of a businessman who was on the same flight with someone who later died of COVID-19 and was believed to have been already infected during the flight. The businessman, who sat behind the patient, wore his mask the whole time. He did not get infected.

Airports

Outside the plane, the whole travel chain also poses risk, every step of the way — from the immigration lines to the baggage conveyor belt. Some airports may be crowded at this time with stranded passengers.

Thus, anyone deciding to fly these days is taking a calculated risk.

Even private jets of some of the country’s billionaires are gathering dust in their respective hangars because some tycoons opt not to fly.

At the end of the day, here’s what I learned from my research — airlines have taken all the steps necessary to ensure the safety of passengers, including the use of the crucial HEPA filters.

That said, plane travel is safer than we think or imagine.

However, just the same, nothing is 100 percent risk-free, especially at this time of a global health pandemic — whether it’s flying on a plane, traveling by boat or simply visiting the mall.

Indeed, traveling by plane is definitely not a suicide mission, but in the time of COVID-19, once we step out of our homes, we’re already taking risks. How big or small that risk is depends on how much precaution we’ve taken and where we’re actually going.

As for me, I would have taken the flight if it was really necessary. But as fate would have it, I have chosen to miss it.

Iris Gonzales’ email address is [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

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