The Future of Commercial Flight.. Jul 26, 2020 11:09:03 GMT
Post by PB on Jul 26, 2020 11:09:03 GMT
This article appears in the current edition of "Engineering & Technology"..
The spread of coronavirus is posing serious challenges for the aviation industry, but could the pandemic help reshape it?
As you arrive at the terminal, your bags have already been checked in, and the flight details safely stored in your app. As you breeze through the surprisingly empty building, cameras track your every movement, monitoring your position, behaviour, temperature, and even mood.
Passport control is a thing of the past as your biometric information is used to identify you. While you relax with a coffee, your phone vibrates with details of your seat and boarding time. A flick of the wrist opens the departure gate, and you stroll on board. Welcome to the future of flight.
For so long the trajectory of the airline industry has been upwards: more flights and more passengers, bigger engines, higher-capacity planes, larger airports and longer runways. Innovation and expansion in commercial aerospace has opened up new possibilities for us all, giving many more of us the chance to visit parts of the world previous generations could only have dreamed of seeing.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, there were over 100,000 passenger flights a day globally – double the number a decade ago. In April 2020, this had fallen to just 29,439. Across the world, airports lie empty, planes line up on runways with their engines covered, and flight crew are furloughed as the industry adapts to the new normal.
Have you ever fallen ill after a flight and wondered if it could be to blame? It’s highly likely – but only if the person next to you was sick. A 2018 study into the transmission of respiratory diseases, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the risk of catching flu from other passengers on a flight is small – unless you sat within a metre of them.
Using computer modelling based on the spread of existing flu viruses, the team found that passengers within a two-seat radius of an infected person had an 80 per cent chance of becoming ill themselves. The risk to the rest of the passengers was low.
We should be wary of drawing too much from one study, but with all communicable diseases, maintaining personal space is the best protection. Social distancing on planes has been proposed as a potential solution, but reaction from the industry hasn’t been positive. In conversation, a Ryanair official who preferred to remain anonymous described the idea of social distancing on aircraft as “completely unenforceable and non-science based”.
Leaving the middle seat free has been suggested, but it’s not just physically impractical, it would spell suicide for the operator. An aircraft needs to be at least two-thirds full to make a flight profitable. “Even with fuel prices low, economically you cannot make money from an aircraft that’s 66 per cent full,” says Thomas Budd, a lecturer in airport planning and management at Cranfield University.
Instead, Ryanair is insisting that all passengers and crew will have to wear face masks. Flyers will be required to ask before using the toilet – something they thankfully won’t be charged for after the low-cost carrier quickly shelved this unpopular policy. There will be no food service, and you’ll have to do your duty-free shopping before you get on board.
Many passengers are concerned about sharing ‘recycled’ air onboard a flight, but they’re falling for a common misconception, says Budd. The plane’s environmental control systems used to maintain cabin pressure mix bleed air taken from the engines with recycled air from the cabin before passing it through ultra-fine HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters.
According to the airlines’ trade association, IATA, these filters are equivalent in performance to those used in hospitals and industrial settings, capturing and neutralising 99 per cent of airborne microbes. They render the air within the cabin cleaner than most of us breathe on the ground.
In reducing the risk of spreading coronavirus, Ryanair – like all EU-based carriers – is bound by the recently issued European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) guidelines for safe commercial air travel.
The agency has stopped short of calling for social distancing on planes or demanding ‘immunity passports’, citing the inaccuracy of antibody tests and the risk of false-negatives. However, to deal with the pandemic, it has introduced a range of measures to reduce the transmission of Covid-19 during flights, including reducing unnecessary social contact, encouraging better personal hygiene and advising on appropriate personal protective clothing and equipment.
Face masks, frequent handwashing and physical distancing may offer passengers some protection, but proximity and biology still mean that communicable diseases like Covid-19 could quickly spread on an aeroplane – which is why Ryanair and other carriers hope that the real disease-prevention work will happen before you step onboard one of their aircraft.
Astronaut Bruce McCandless may have quipped that you can’t see borders from space, but arrive at any airport in the near future and you’ll be reminded that they’re very much in force on Planet Earth.
“Covid-19 is an invisible threat,” says Budd. “The question is, how do you tackle something you can’t see?” You can’t lock a door or build a wall, he adds, but you can keep people locked up, with the UK government introducing a mandatory 14-day quarantine period for new arrivals as it attempts to control the threat of importing infected passengers that could cause a dangerous second spike in infections.
Heathrow was the first UK airport to trial thermal-imaging cameras to check the temperature of arriving passengers but, like much of the UK’s response to coronavirus, we’re still playing catch-up. Across the world, countries are trialling various heat-detection methods, including full-body infrared scanners that measure skin temperature, ear gun thermometers and handheld infrared thermometers.
If passengers have a temperature of 38°C or above, they’re unlikely to be allowed to board an aircraft. Thankfully, if you’ve been scanned and deemed safe on departure, that should be enough for passengers travelling within the EU.
The efficacy of heat-scanning continues to be debated, with Public Health England describing it as having “little clinical value”. It does, however, send a powerful signal. The technology may be inexact and imprecise, but its function may be less about identifying infected people than reassuring other passengers that air travel is safe.
Technologist and Harvard lecturer Bruce Scheiner defined this in his concept of ‘security as theatre’. In 2009, his influential essay explored the links between increasing airport security and terrorism, concluding that these technologies “make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve their security”.
Budd agrees that the measures enacted at airports are, to an extent, performative – providing reassurance to passengers rather than protection. In the short term, a temperature check, like a passport check, may become a requirement for international travel. In the future, there may be no checks at all.
Budd is part of the Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre at Cranfield University. The new £65m centre is due to open in mid-2020. He and colleagues are exploring how to create a ‘seamless journey’ where disruptive digital technologies can increase safety and improve passenger satisfaction.
“There’s an increased urgency about how airports can monitor, influence and predict passenger behaviour,” Budd says – with technology such as CCTV and AI doing the heavy lifting. To cope with coronavirus threats, he believes airports will increasingly use cameras and sensor technology to monitor passengers, identifying – and potentially predicting – where large groups of people may gather, enabling them to be dispersed.