FLYING DURING COVID-19 can be an intimidating affair. The overall experience is fraught with uncertainties: what are the odds of catching the virus inflight? Can physical distancing be practised? What about the aircraft’s air filtration system? These questions are pertinent and plenty. To clear the air, Penang Monthly speaks to representatives of the industry for some much-needed insight.
“Your Safety is Our Responsibility”
Top on AirAsia’s list of priorities following the lifting of the interstate travel ban is to protect the safety of its passengers and cabin crew. This is achieved through a set of enhanced disinfection procedures, on top of its regular air cabin cleaning measures. “All of the cleaning and disinfecting processes which are designed based on the Airbus Aircraft Maintenance Manual are conducted by the Maintenance Operation Controller who coordinates a team of five to six people to carry out the cleaning for each aircraft,” says Riad Asmat, the CEO of AirAsia Malaysia.
Upon entering the aircraft, the team clean and dry all surface areas in the cabin with a clean cloth and water, and a thorough air ventilation is carried out. Next, all aircraft equipment and furnishings including the cockpit, galleys, lavatories, passenger seats and cargo compartment are sanitised with chemical disinfectants approved by the health authorities.
Before the two-hour cleaning process is completed, all clinical waste are disposed of according to standard clinical hazardous waste management practices. A final layer of disinfectant chemicals is then applied to the waste compartment.
For every AirAsia flight, temperature screening of passengers and cabin crew members is conducted at different checkpoints and boarding gates, and passengers have to wear a face mask at all times.
Cabin crew members are also equipped with PPE, including face masks, visors and gloves throughout the flight. The face masks are replaced every four hours or when damp, while the gloves are changed after every cleaning.
“Our aircrafts are also equipped with state-of-the-art High Efficiency Particulate Arrestors, or HEPA Filters, which are similar to those you find in a hospital operating theatre,” Riad says. “These filters eliminate 99.99% of dust particles and airborne contaminants, including viruses and bacteria. Every three minutes the air in the cabin is completely refreshed, so you’re breathing in the highest possible air quality throughout the flight.”
Riad explains that AirAsia’s staggered boarding policy lets passengers board the aircraft from the back to the front. This ensures minimum physical contact. The cabin crew have also been trained to respond to any inflight medical emergencies in light of Covid-19, including identifying and isolating passengers who appear unwell, and a specified row of seats is reserved for possible inflight quarantine.
"The lab, as an added health security measure, will prove to be of great advantage in the long run, not just in monitoring Covid-19, but other infectious diseases like yellow fever and Ebola.”
AirAsia has recently introduced contactless check-in procedures such as contactless payments at airports, the Passenger Reconciliation System which allows passengers to proceed to boarding gates without having physical contact with the aviation security, and enhanced features on its mobile app using QR codes.
“We welcome the reopening of domestic travel and introduction of incentives like the RM1,000 income tax relief for domestic tourism expenses until December 2021. In turn, we are also introducing a string of attractive promotions to encourage domestic tourism, including 50% off on return flights for domestic travel from August 4 to December 6, 2020.”
A Swab Lab at the Airport
In June it was announced that a Covid-19 swab laboratory is to be set up within Penang International Airport, to shorten the time required to conduct swab tests on inbound passengers. The lab is the second one to be established in Malaysia, after KLIA.
Previous to this, passengers had to wait for at least two hours to obtain the results of their swab tests as samples were transported to the General Hospital and two other state Health Clinics at Bayan Baru and in Jalan Perak to be examined. Now, it takes only about 45 minutes to an hour for passengers to receive clearance.
“The lab consists of biosafety cabinets, swab chambers and work stations. It has boosted the airport’s capacity to receive up to 400 flights per day currently, marking a significant increase from the previous 150 flights daily,” says Dr. Izani Uzair Zubair, head of the Penang International Entry Point Health Office, the unit under the Penang State Health Department in charge of monitoring communicable diseases among passengers entering Penang via the airport and seaport.
The Covid-19 Swab Lab at PIA. Photo: Penang International Entry Point Health Office.
According to Izani, inbound passengers on international flights are taken to a designated waiting area at the arrival terminal to be briefed by health officers on the swab test procedure. Later, they are taken to the work station to register their personal information. The swab test results of passengers who may have taken them in their respective countries of origin are also examined.
At this point, the health officers determine whether passengers who have taken their swab tests three days prior to the departure date – as stipulated by the Health Ministry – will need to undergo another swab test. It is compulsory for passengers who have yet to be tested to be swabbed. Once done, the samples are examined in the biosafety cabinets.
Those tested negative undergo the mandatory 14-day quarantine at designated quarantine centres or hotels. Those showing positive results are transferred to the General Hospital for quarantine and medical treatment in a specially-equipped ambulance. This procedure is similarly conducted at Penang Port.
“So far, we’ve been fortunate to not have detected any positive cases at both the entry points. The lab, as an added health security measure, will prove to be of great advantage in the long run, not just in monitoring Covid-19, but other infectious diseases like yellow fever and Ebola,” says Izani.
A Passenger’s Personal Account
Penangite Choo Siew Fah travelled back to Penang from Bangkok during the Recovery MCO. A long-time employee of the hospitality industry in Bangkok, Choo had to return to Malaysia following the closure in June of the hotel she worked at. But it was not until July that she managed to get a flight back to Penang.
Recalling her experience, Choo says the entire process, from ticket purchase to her disembarkment onto Malaysian soil was done without physical contact with the staff or cabin crew. “Everything was done through my smartphone; and while boarding the flight, I was regularly reminded to keep my distance from other passengers. I noticed that the lavatory was also cleaned each time after it was used. All in all, I felt rather safe travelling by air,” she says.
Enzo Sim is a Mass Communications graduate who has an unwavering passion towards International Relations, history and regional affairs of Southeast Asia. His passion has brought him to different Southeast Asian capitals to explore the diverse cultural intricacies within the region.