As a commercial pilot aged 60 plus, who has so far been lucky to not get infected, people often consider me well qualified to answer the question, “Is air travel in the times of Corona safe?”
In September 2020, after hibernating for six months, a friend emerged from his ‘lock-down’ and bravely offered to meet us socially. I had to remind him, with a heavy heart, that I had been flying since June 2020 as soon as the government had allowed it.
To that, he asked, “Is it safe?”
At that time, all I could answer was, “I don’t know.”
When many Covid warriors were fighting the disease and helping the patients, how could I want to sit in the safety of my home?
Since I seemed more likely to have been ‘exposed’, he promptly and politely postponed the granting of his ‘darshan’ to us.
A prominent Indian personality, in what now seems to be a distant past, had famously chanted, “Go Corona Go!”
One is not sure whether that was a command, an order, an instruction, a request, or a prayer, but, like an illegal immigrant, Corona did not only not obey, it also invited its relatives from different countries.
They had exotic names like Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta; and now comes the youngest, Omicron, which reportedly is cute (less dangerous) and endearing (more contagious).
And these are the more notable or notorious variants, what WHO politely calls ‘Variants of Concern’. But like in every family, there are poorer relatives too, whom nobody remembers, called the ‘Variants of Interest’, named Lambda and Mu.
At that time, many people laughed at the inventor of that chant, ‘Go Corona Go!’ and even at Corona’s likely dangers, but, as we now realise, Corona is not a laughing matter. Lot of us have lost a lot, all of us have lost someone we know, and many have suffered emotional and financial losses.
But even as we learn the new ways of post-pandemic life, a sort of fatigue has now set in, eliciting extreme reactions, ranging from absolute apathy to astounding alarm.
I recently heard a three-year-old mouthing the words ‘RT-PCR’ during a game the kids were playing. Not sure I heard the right words in that baby’s pronunciation, I asked the kid to repeat them, and he did, correctly. Then I asked him what that meant, and the boy, unlike some of our politicians, honestly said he didn’t know, and gave me a childlike look, silently enquiring if I knew the answer.
Like most of us, I too did not know the full form of RT-PCR.
So, with all the knowledge gained over the last two years, is air travel in the times of Corona safe?
Aircraft manufacturers and airlines claim that air travel is safer than being indoors elsewhere. A part of the air inside the aircraft is recirculated before being dumped overboard, but it is also well filtered. So, the risk of catching an infection, according to them, is less than catching it at the airport or in the closed car ride to the airport.
What better proof of that than my own uninfected self?
For the record, I got my first vaccine shot only in April and the second in July 2021.
But is it safe despite not following the norms of social distancing?
The six feet social distancing is impossible inside the aircraft, and is rarely followed, at least at some airports, in our country full of impatient passengers.
Our pilots as well as cabin crew keep reminding the passengers to remain seated while deplaning, till the rows ahead have moved away.
Does everyone listen?
As soon as they proposed this six-feet rule, it was clear to the insiders (in the industry and in the aircraft!) that the rule was not implementable, because, if actually strictly followed, you would have only two passengers per row, and would need to keep two rows empty.
Which means, 8 out of any 9 seats would have to be empty!
A Boeing 737-800, the plane that I fly, has 189 seats. If only 1 out of every 9 seats could be occupied, we would have just 21 passengers on board.
And the tickets would have to be priced 9 times more!
Worse, as a wise old pilot then said, rather poetically, “One pilot will sit in the toilet!”
Who is this far-sighted, wise man? You ask? Please don’t. One hates to be immodestly calling oneself wise.
So, we decided to reduce the distance and accepted the compromise of keeping the middle seat empty, which too was found to be impractical.
Then came the rule for the middle seat passengers to wear the full PPE kit, including the face shield.
Soon, even that was forgotten, and some passengers, claiming discomfort, also began to remove their masks, despite reminders by the crew and fellow passengers.
In a recent incident, 125 of the 160 adult passengers of a chartered flight coming from Italy, categorised as ‘at risk’ country, tested positive on landing in Amritsar. The authorities wanted them quarantined in government hospitals, but the travellers protested inside the airport and their relatives protested outside. That tested the resolve of the state government, which failed that test and asked the passengers to self-quarantine in their respective homes.
Contrast that with another passenger travelling from USA to Switzerland, presumably for a family holiday. She had taken both jabs for Covid, plus the booster shot. Then she underwent the RT-PCR test, not once, but twice. In addition to that, she did the ‘Rapid Test’ on herself five times – yes, full five times – before the flight.
Then, during the cruise, she felt a slight pain in the throat – probably the kind you feel every winter in Delhi – and self-administered yet another rapid test while on board.
By then the dormant virus, its ego certainly hurt after so many tests, finally showed up, and she tested positive!
She reported that to the crew who isolated her in the airplane toilet for the next three hours of the flight. Then she deplaned last, and proceeded to a designated hotel for quarantine in Iceland, while her family proceeded to Switzerland.
So, is air travel in the times of Corona safe?
I will continue flying. Covid is just one of the many risks in my job.
And by the way, what is the full form of RT-PCR?
Reverse Transcription–Polymerase Chain Reaction.
As far as I understand, it stands for: Right Test (but) Please Cautiously React.
The writer is a former fighter pilot of the IAF and now a commercial airline pilot. He is the author of two books and many blog posts, available at www.avinashchikte.com