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Return of confidence in flying big challenge for airlines

Global airlines, after incurring unprecedented losses and possible bankruptcy due to the COVID-19 pandemic, are bound to face a tough time convincing people air travel is safe when commercial flight operations resume under new normal protocols.

Gilbert Santa Maria, president of Philippine Airlines (PAL) said he believes the aviation industry is capable of coping with the global health crisis, better than other industries.

“We are better prepared than most industries to handle things like this. If you wear a mask and you’re in an aircraft, it is the same as being in an operating room. That’s how clean the air is. Airplanes recycle air every three minutes. The air from the outside, and at 30,000 feet there’s almost no likelihood of having any viruses survive,” Santa Maria said.

“So we know the air in a plane is clean. We want to build confidence in flying again. And we will take precautions,” he added.

PAL is planning to operate domestic routes from Davao to possibly Iloilo, Siargao and General Santos with quarantine protocols relaxes in those cities.

PAL’s domestic flights to or from Manila, Cebu and Clark remain cancelled for the rest of May.

Cebu Pacific and AirAsia Philippines both announced all their flights remain suspended until May 31.

While preparing for resumption of operations, local carriers assured passengers that new sanitation protocols and intensified preventive measures will be implemented when airlines restart flights.

Measures include contactless transactions via self check-in kiosks at airports, physical distancing at check-in and boarding queues, mandatory temperature scanning and mandatory use of face masks.

Aside from disinfecting the airplane cabins after each flight, PAL, Cebu Pacific and AirAsia said their aircraft are equipped with air filters (called High Efficiency Particulate Arrestor [HEPA]) that are capable of filtering microscopic bacteria and virus clusters, similar to what is used in hospital operating rooms.

However, the three airlines all believe that getting air travel demand back to pre-pandemic level would be daunting.

Roberto Lim, executive director of the Air Carriers Association of the Philippines (ACAP), said local airlines expect to initially experience low load factors or many vacant seats. “When we start operations on when that may be, we believe that demand will be low. And because the demand is low, the airlines will have the ability to spread the seating arrangement inside the aircraft. That’s how we anticipate,” Lim said.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) reported that evidence indicate that the risk of virus transmission inside an airplane is low even without special measures.

“Airlines are obsessed with safety. We have to maintain international safety standards, and the fact that the aircraft have HEPA filters that capture viruses, is an artifact of decades of trying to prevent contagion from spreading on board a narrow tube,” Santa Maria said.

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