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Preparing for Takeoff: Protocol Released for Safe Restart of Air Travel

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) have issued a joint document defining measures to assure the health safety of air travellers and aviation personnel in the region once airlines resume regular flight schedules following the severe disruption caused by COVID-19.

EASA and ECDC were charged by the European Commission with drawing up the guidelines, as part of a wider package of measures to prompt the safe restoration of transport services and connectivity following the outbreak of COVID-19. 

Recognizing that airports, airlines and aircraft are different, it takes a pragmatic approach in implementation – highlighting and giving guidance on the ways in which individual locations and situations can best be re-engineered to meet the new health safety standards.

Some overarching principles apply throughout: deep cleaning at airports, PPE for customer-facing staff, physical distancing wherever possible, face coverings to protect other passengers, and scrupulous and frequent hand hygiene.

The document assures passengers that “filtered air on airplanes is safer and cleaner than many of us breathe on the ground”. European Commissioner for Transport Adina Valean said passengers have to have confidence that taking to the skies again in a confined space with other people poses the minimum possible risk to their health. “We relied on our specialists from EASA and ECDC to define a set of concrete measures for the safe resumption of air travel within the EU. The protocol will reassure passengers that it is safe for them to fly and so help the industry recover from the effects of this pandemic.”

The document sets out various measures for passengers and stakeholders, such as the use of protective screens and the need for passengers to ensure they have enough face coverings for their journey as they are recommended to be changed every four hours, or sooner if they become dirty.

On thermal screening, the protocol states “testing passengers in order to allow travelling/flying under ‘immunity passports’ is not supported by the current scientific knowledge that exists on the immunological response to SARS-CoV-2 (quality, quantity and duration of human antibodies) or the available testing methods (laboratory based and point-of-care). Nevertheless, EASA and ECDC are monitoring the scientific developments and will update their recommendation as appropriate if a suitable test becomes available.”

Some airports are choosing to implement departure therma screening. In order to avoid duplication, the protocol says passengers arriving from EU/EEA flights that have been subject to screening at the departure airport should be exempted from entry screening in the arrival state. 

If a passenger has been screened and found to have fever (38°C or higher) and considered COVID-19 suspect, they should be dealt with in accordance with the instructions of the local public health authorities in terms of testing, transport and quarantine. The document points out that symptomatic passengers should not, under any circumstance, be repatriated on a regular passenger flight.

For airport operators considering implementing thermal screening for departing passengers, the document recommends screening staff wear appropriate protective equipment and that the checks should occur immediately after entering the airport premises – before check-in and baggage drop-off. Airport operators should provide separate interview booths for the event of suspected or probable cases requiring further assessment. These booths should ensure confidentiality and prevent viral transmission to individuals in the neighbouring booths. The booths should be disinfected after each use to prevent viral transmission to the next occupants.  

Due to intensive use, thermal screening equipment should be regularly recalibrated in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions or at even shorter intervals. 

Thermal screening is not a silver bullet. It has many limitations and little evidence of effectiveness in detecting COVID-19 cases because many symptomatic persons do not have fever and a large percentage of transmission of COVID-19 occurs by asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic cases. In addition, fever can easily be treated with medication which may result in a false impression of safety with negative effect on compliance with other measures. 

According to the protocol, if passengers do not comply with the requirements including distancing, wearing of face coverings, and screening, they can be refused access to the airport terminal building, to the aircraft cabin, or disembarked, if the events take place before aircraft doors are shut, and removed from airport premises by the competent public authorities according to national/local legislation. Subject to national requirements, they may also be subject to actions as determined by the local authorities at the departure airport.

The recommended measures will be regularly evaluated and updated in line with changes in knowledge of the risk of transmission as well as with development of other diagnostic or preventive measures.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has welcomed the release of the protocol guidelines, but warns they will only be effective if all European states deliver harmonized implementation and mutually recognize each other’s efforts. 

“EASA and ECDC has delivered a sensible framework for restarting aviation while protecting public health. The guidance is clear that while airlines should seek to maintain physical distancing where practicable, flexibility on seating arrangements is permitted. And quarantine requirements are not necessary. But it is absolutely essential that all European states apply these guidelines in a harmonized and mutually recognized way. Local deviations and exceptions will damage public confidence and make it harder to operate effectively. This would be harmful to public health and the economic recovery. IATA will support states to implement these guidelines in the fastest and most efficient way,” said Rafael Schvartzman, IATA’s Regional Vice President for Europe.

The EASA and ECDC guidelines will make an important contribution to the discussions being held by the International Civil Aviation Organization COVID-19 Aviation Recovery Taskforce (ICAO CART) which is tasked with developing the global standards needed for the safe re-start of aviation.

Read the full protocol at EASA

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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