EASA and ECDC issue joint Covid-19 guidelines to assure health safety for air travel

The new guidelines provide the first steps towards restarting air travel within the EU. (Photo: Mick Dodsworth)

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) have issued a joint document defining measures to assure the health safety of air travellers and aviation personnel once airlines resume regular flight schedules following the severe disruption caused by COVID-19.

The guidelines are designed to place paramount importance on health safety at every stage of the end-to-end passenger journey. The joint statement recognised that airports, airlines and aircraft are different, and said the two organisations were taking a pragmatic approach in implementation – highlighting and giving guidance on the ways in which individual locations and situations can best be re-engineered to meet the new health safety standards.

It stated that some overarching principles apply throughout:

  • observe physical distancing wherever possible,
  • wear a medical face mask to protect other passengers
  • practice scrupulous and frequent hand hygiene.

The document underlined that both air passengers and the general population must be assured that filtered air onboard aircraft in flight is safer and cleaner than many of us breathe on the ground.

The European Commission had tasked EASA and the ECDC with drawing up the guidelines, as part of a wider package of measures to prompt the safe restoration of transport services and connectivity following the outbreak of COVID-19.

The European Commissioner for Transport, Adina Valean, commented: “The safety of passengers and crews has always been paramount in aviation.

“Passengers have to have confidence that taking to the skies again in a confined space with other people poses the minimum possible risk to their health. We relied on our specialists from EASA and ECDC to define a set of concrete measures for the safe resumption of air travel within the EU. The protocol will reassure passengers that it is safe for them to fly and so help the industry recover from the effects of this pandemic.”

The guidance examines each phase of the passenger journey, and specifies the actions that need to be taken or measures put in place in six travel segments: before arrival at the airport, in the departure terminal, when boarding, in flight, in transit and on arrival at the final destination. A separate section focusses on the safety of flight crew members.

EASA executive director, Patrick Ky, said: “The assurance of health safety is a critical factor for the resumption of commercial air travel. This protocol is the blueprint for safe air travel, from the moment of arrival at the departure airport right through to leaving the airport at the destination.

“This is the start, rather than the end, of a process to make air travel as safe as possible from the health perspective, in addition to the technical safety which has until now been the main focus of EASA. The next task is for airlines and airport operators to adapt the guidelines to their individual facilities and operations. EASA and ECDC will continue to offer their expertise in this crucial phase.”

ECDC director, Andrea Ammon, added: “This joint work will provide a source of best practice on how airport operators, airlines and national aviation authorities can reduce the risk of virus transmission for passengers as well as the staff and crew who serve them whilst maintaining safe and secure operations”.

The joint statement said the guidelines reflect the best available scientific knowledge currently available and noted that the ECDC is continuously monitoring the situation of COVID-19 and will update the requirements as new epidemiological information, testing and treatment modalities become available.

It also explained that passengers themselves are also expected to take personal responsibility. For example, passengers who have COVID-19 compatible symptoms (fever, cough, sudden loss of smell, shortness of breath) or who are aware that they have come in contact with a COVID-19 case should not arrive at the airport or should postpone their travel to protect their fellow passengers.

Passengers are recommended to practice distancing, hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, and use medical face masks, and to declare their COVID-19-related status before receiving their boarding pass. They will also be asked to provide contact information to allow for “track and trace” if someone on a particular flight later tests positive for COVID-19.

Those not travelling will need to say goodbye to the passenger before they enter the terminal building, except in some “special cases” that have not yet been defined.

For aircraft and airport operators, significant changes will be required to their processes. The protocol states: “Aeroplane operators and airport operators should cooperate to ensure physical distancing is respected wherever feasible, especially during check-in, security check, pre-boarding and boarding. When the recommended physical distancing of 5ft (1.5m) is not possible, due to infrastructure or operational constraints, aircraft operators and airport operators should implement the additional risk mitigation measures such as hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, additional transport, etc.”

Onboard the aircraft, the guidelines offer some flexibility due to the constrained space, but are clear that wherever possible passengers should be physically distanced: “In addition to the other health and hygiene measures that must be observed at all times, where allowed by the passenger load, cabin configuration and mass and balance requirements, aeroplane operators should ensure, to the extent possible, physical distancing among passengers.”