LONDON — Airlines operating into a region where a medical epidemic is raging face a dilemma: They want to reassure customers that it is safe to fly with them. On the other hand, no airline likes to talk about any subject that makes passengers nervous.
The Zika virus in Brazil – and in a district of Miami – is the latest epidemic to hit the headlines and has caused considerable alarm. However, although easily caught, Zika is rarely serious – unless you are pregnant. For those who are worried, many carriers have allowed passengers to change their itineraries at no cost or even have tickets refunded.
Traditionally, airlines operating into regions where there is a risk of malaria-carrying mosquitoes or other unwelcome insect life having sneaked on board have a simple solution: just spray the cabin with aerosols of insecticide on departure.
However, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta says that the chance of Zika-carrying mosquitoes getting on board commercial flights is slight and it does not recommend any prophylactic spraying of cabins. So from an airline perspective, the Zika problem is relatively slight.
But what happens when you have to deal with a real nasty – like Ebola. Remember that? In 2014-15 it rampaged through a swathe of West Africa, killing thousands. Once a person is in its throes, it is highly contagious. They hemorrhage from every orifice. And contact with any bodily fluid of an infected person is potentially lethal.
So, how does an airline deal with flying into such a ‘hot zone’?
In the case of Ebola, most airlines didn’t. They took the decision that the only safe course of action was to stop flying to the region.
Now, Monrovia, Freetown and Conakry – the capitals respectively of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – don’t figure on many westerners’ itineraries unless they have business there. But they’re home to thousands of Africans who do want to travel. And they suddenly found their ability to do so severely curtailed.
Just one European carrier continued to operate into the affected area. That was Brussels Airlines, the Belgian carrier.
A medium-sized European airline with around 50 aircraft, its operations are largely intra-European. But of its 22 non-European destinations, 19 are in Africa. (The other three are New York, Washington DC and Toronto). The airline, like its direct predecessor Sabena, has strong historic links with Africa and it didn’t want to abandon those.
Staff were told there was no obligation to fly on services into the affected region if they didn’t want to. And CEO Bernard Gustin flew as cabin crew on several flights into the epidemic zone, saying he couldn’t ask his staff to do something he wasn’t prepared to do himself.
So, what precautions did the company put into effect? “We were in close contact with health authorities in Belgium, the US and Canada,” spokeswoman Wencke Lemmes-Pireaux told Airways. “All our aircraft were disinfected and cleaned in a very special way. Our handling agents were informed how to clean the aircraft and how to treat baggage.”
Passengers’ temperatures were checked before boarding (those few passengers with elevated readings were discovered to be suffering from ‘flu, not Ebola) and cabin crew wore face masks during boarding and disembarking procedures.
Despite all these precautions, said Lemmes-Pireaux, “For many months we were the most hated airline in the world. We had threatening letters and calls saying we were bringing Ebola to Europe and the US.”
However, “All the health organizations said ‘Please continue your flights.’” Not only did they act as one of the few ways to get medical personnel from all over the world – particularly North America and Europe – into the affected nations, but Brussels Airlines’ presence let Africans know they had not been completely abandoned by the outside world.
Importantly from the commercial standpoint, Brussels Airlines’ presence in the epidemic area did not affect overall passenger numbers, said Lemmes-Pireaux.
A decade ago, during the Asian SARS epidemic, the fear of the disease spreading via air travel was also widespread. Many carriers and airports began monitoring embarking passengers with hand-held scanners that detected elevated temperatures, as fever was one of the symptoms of someone going down with the syndrome. Once again, however, the risk of transmission on board was low, according to the World Health Organization.
So, unless you’re dealing with a really serious contagious or infectious disease, many of the headlines about the risks of air travel to a Zika zone will remain just that – headlines.
But on the wider hygiene level, some airlines are beginning to wake up to the threat of harmful viruses or bacteria lingering on cabin surfaces for up to two weeks. As we said above, airlines dislike talking about this subject and companies selling anti-viral solutions frequently run up against bans on publicizing their sales.
Which makes the actions of Middle East carrier Oman Air interesting. It announced last week it was introducing a new anti-infection system, Virus-Guard, which crew or cleaners can use in the form of disinfectant wipes on ‘busy’ surfaces such as door handles, lavatories and galleys.
By announcing this publically, the airline obviously believes there is mileage to be gained among potential customers by being seen to be proactive in helping cut down the chances of bugs being transmitted among passengers. It will be interesting to see if other carriers follow suit.