COVID-19 changed many aspects of business aviation, from crew scheduling procedures and cabin sanitization protocols, to an emphasis on social distancing and working from home. With the coronavirus pandemic finally appearing to wane throughout the U.S. as many citizens have been vaccinated against the disease, the question now becomes, “How many of those technologies and practices will continue going forward?”
Among the most noticeable changes in the COVID-19 environment were those that occurred onboard aircraft, as operators adapted cabin cleaning practices to include materials-safe disinfectants and advanced sanitization machines utilizing ionized air and ultraviolet-A lighting.
“Of course, we cleaned aircraft cabins before COVID, but obviously we’ve stepped up,” said Dr. Paulo Alves, global director for aviation health at MedAire. “Methods like ionizing machines, UV light and residual disinfectants bear a cost, but I believe they’ve become additional services commercial operators provide to offer passengers comfort and peace of mind.”
Alves acknowledged “with the benefit of hindsight, we now know that we perhaps overreached in some areas,” as subsequent research determined the risk of spreading the disease through contaminated surfaces is relatively low. However, he expects such measures to continue for some time to come.
“If it eases your passengers’ concerns, then why not?” said Alves. “I don’t really see any way to step back from it in the short term.
“At the same time, we’ve learned that the main focus [of mitigating virus transmission] needs to be on preventing anyone infected with COVID from coming on board the aircraft,” continued Alves.
“We’ve taken lessons from the commercial [airline] industry that stacking preventative layers – such as pre-travel COVID screenings, temperature checks and, perhaps most importantly, paying close attention to passengers’ physical conditions – are important steps to ensure the risk of inflight transmission is significantly less than in the preflight environment.
“We should be mindful of the already low risk of inflight transmission in modern pressurized aircraft, thanks to HEPA filtration, air replenishment and circulation,” Alves concluded.
“While most countries still require proof of testing rather than of vaccination, I wouldn't be surprised if we eventually see some kind of COVID vaccination passport protocol.”
Jared Taylor Safety Manager & Fixed Wing Captain, Johnson & Johnson
Technology Keeps Us Connected, Collaborating
As social distancing requirements and lockdowns spread during the early days of the pandemic, those working in business aviation came to rely on videoconferencing to keep in touch with coworkers and peers in the industry. Jared Taylor, safety manager and fixed wing captain at Johnson & Johnson, said use of video yielded an unexpected benefit.
“We were very fortunate to have been able to collaborate and leverage the expertise of our medical department, and many of our practices are directly connected to information they provided to us,” he said.
“At the same time, smaller operations have benefited from the unprecedented level of communication and information sharing we’ve seen throughout our industry during this crisis, as operators connected with other operators to openly share best practices.”
Taylor hopes that level of collaboration carries forward.
“I think we’ll see some reduction to virtual information-sharing, simply because we’re all suffering from COVID fatigue and Zoom fatigue,” he said. “At the same time, the willingness to share vital practices holds benefits in other areas, most notably on matters of operational safety.”
Bob Hobbi – founder, president and CEO of ServiceElements International, Inc. – emphasized that communication is also key to ensuring that flight operations continue implementing these best practices without burdening their passengers or employees.
“If you've adopted successful policies concerning COVID, you've also implemented them consistently, with no apparent 'gaps' for passengers to notice.”
Bob Hobbi Founder, President and CEO, ServiceElements International, Inc.
“One of the key components of [the response to] COVID-19 has been the consistency of practices in successful organizations,” he said. “If you’ve adopted successful policies concerning COVID, you’ve also implemented them consistently, with no apparent ‘gaps’ for passengers to notice. The last thing you want is one crewmember saying, ‘this is our policy,’ while another says it’s not.”
That may prove especially challenging in the coming months, as COVID restrictions ease. For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in May that vaccinated persons were no longer required to wear masks in most indoor and outdoor settings. That did not extend to commercial aircraft cabins, however, and many state-level mask mandates continued despite the updated CDC guidance.
However, Alves noted that business aviation presents a unique environment.
“We aren’t really disassociated as an industry with the larger community, but we may be able to accelerate progress within certain niches,” he said. “A business aviation operation whose passengers have all been vaccinated can confidently ‘walk faster’ than others with more varied clientele, though, of course, we all need to follow the general directions recommended by public health officials.”
Those policies must also be prepared to accommodate those who, for whatever reason, may be reluctant or even refuse to follow masking and social distancing guidelines. Hobbi cited one FBO that invites passengers reluctant to abide by social distancing or mask requirements to “please follow me to your waiting area,” which enabled social distancing from others without calling undue attention to the situation.
“We’re all used to these procedures by now,” added Hobbi. “That doesn’t mean you won’t come across an owner or passenger who just doesn’t agree with COVID protocols.” Hobbi acknowledges that finding an acceptable solution may require “some deep and strategic thinking.”
More Testing, Vaccination Requirements
As business aviation travel, particularly international flying, ramps up, operators must be mindful of evolving requirements for COVID-19 testing and, possibly, proof of vaccination in the form of so-called “COVID passports.”
Taylor said his flight operation has developed an on-aircraft COVID testing regime that’s proven accurate and effective.
“We test before every single flight day, with kits dedicated to a specific airplane,” he said. The actual testing is conducted off the aircraft, Taylor added, in the hangar or in the crew’s hotel rooms, and “we’re able to have results within 22 minutes with 99% accuracy.
“While most countries still require proof of testing rather than of vaccination, I wouldn’t be surprised if we eventually see some kind of COVID vaccination passport protocol,” continued Taylor. “If that happens, we’ll work it into our operations, as we have other measures. We’re constantly adapting our protocols; I think we’re now on our ninth revision since the pandemic began.”
Alves agreed on the likelihood of vaccination passports in some form, particularly for international travel.
“I recently participated in an ICAO discussion about this,” he said. “We already have vaccination certificates for yellow fever required in some countries, though, of course, that’s a smaller scope than COVID.
“One concern is that such a requirement may place an unequal burden on some countries, which is why the World Health Organization has been reluctant in recommending such a tactic,” Alves continued. “What we may see instead are bilateral agreements between specific countries, which could result in different requirements for each leg of an international trip.”
Stay Flexible and Adapt
Regardless of specific requirements, Hobbi emphasized that aircraft operators must frequently review their practices and adapt where necessary, while at the same time ensuring everyone in the department is on the same page.
“In my 18 years in this job, one consistent message is the importance of rehearsing the process and rehearsing the communication,” he explained. “We must never assume everyone will be ready to communicate why we’re doing something. Brainstorm for consistency and to create the comfort and confidence with our teams. Everything about [responding to] COVID is tied to that.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge, Alves said, will be in maintaining a commensurate level of vigilance after more than a year of COVID-19 mitigation practices, awareness and stress.
“People are tired of this whole thing,” Alves declared. “But we really need to pay attention and reach a true safety point before we lower our guard. We’re in the middle of a fight, and we are winning that fight. It would be so sad if we ultimately needed to start over.”