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Coronavirus and risks in airplanes: are the protections sufficient?

The terminals at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport are empty. For more than five weeks since planes have been grounded due to the coronavirus pandemic, thefts have been rare. The few passengers who walk there have no trouble respecting safety distances to avoid spreading the virus. Most of the counters are fitted with plexiglass windows and the floor markings remind everyone of the new organization of the queues.

But it is with the approach of the planes that the situation becomes complicated. Boarding is a delicate first step. “We are supposed to enter in a dropper but there is always a moment when it plugs a little to access the cockpit or to settle in his seat when the other passengers deposit their luggage in the trunks, explains Isabelle who carried out a flight to Nice this weekend. But it is also during the flight that we are not very reassured. Even if I had no one next to me, there are many people who move including the hostesses and the stewards. And I didn’t understand that we offer drinks during the flight ”.

At Air France, part of the on-board services such as duty-free sales and distribution of newspapers have been suspended, but the distribution of meals and snacks continues with packaged products. “On one-hour flights, an adult can refrain from eating or drinking. I do not think there is an absolute need for service at headquarters, laments Steve Drula, general secretary of the flight crew union UNPNC-CFDT. We could prepare sachets at the entrance to the plane that passengers can take if they want to. ”

From the start of the epidemic, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) set up a protocol to supervise the flights while minimizing the risks. In particular, it recommends restricting access on board for personnel, increasing cabin disinfection, spacing out passengers and having masks worn by all crews by changing them every four hours. The organization also recalled the use for air renewal in cockpits of HEPA type filters, effective against the SARS-Cov-2 virus. “The air in the cabin is changed every three minutes,” says Air France. We have also generalized specific disinfection procedures with, in particular, the regular spraying of a virucidal product ”. The personnel on board are equipped with masks and gloves and benefit from hydroalcoholic gel. The use of visors is also being studied. Protections that employees have been demanding for several weeks. “It was difficult because there was a shortage. These are satisfactory decisions, explains Christelle Auster, the general secretary of the SNPNC-FO union. The rules put in place create an acceptable environment even if one cannot say that it is devoid of risks ”.

However, the greatest danger lies in the proximity between passengers, especially when they share adjacent seats. A study by University of Pennsylvania carried out in 2003 during the Sars epidemic demonstrated that with the different movements of a passenger, the risk of transmission was greater for passengers traveling on the same row or on those preceding or following a sick person. The researchers also calculated that people sitting on the side of the windows were statistically less likely to be confronted with a sick passenger than their situation on the plane.

Coronavirus and risks in airplanes: are the protections sufficient?

On the side of Air France, which ensured the repatriation flights of French stranded abroad, we assure that the risk is limited. On the thirty flights made each day at this time against more than a thousand usually, the filling rate would be on average close to 50%. “In almost all cases, social distancing can be respected,” says the French company. If this is not the case, we are now distributing masks to passengers who do not have them ”.

Measures that will continue after May 11 even if traffic should initially only open to domestic flights. “We are working with the health authorities and are awaiting clarification of the measures in this new framework”, we slip at Air France. “We are calling for a recovery meeting with the entire airport platform, but we already want all the staff to be able to be tested,” continues Steve Drula. Many employees exercise their right of withdrawal, which demonstrates that the measures put in place are not enough to reassure them. We understand the difficulties encountered by the management with which we work hand in hand. But some always come to work the ball in the belly ”.

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