Airports and airlines volunteer to be EU virus safety guinea pigs

A view of the departure boarding at Brussels Airport, Belgium, 15 March 2020. [Photo: EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

EU guidelines put together by the bloc’s aviation safety and health agencies will be trialled by seven of Europe’s airport operators and three of its airlines, as the air travel industry begins to kick back into gear following the coronavirus outbreak slump.

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) compiled a protocol last month, upon request from the European Commission, which is designed to mitigate infection risk and get planes in the sky again.

Spanish airport operator AENA, Athens International Airport, Brussels Airport, Frankfurt Airport, Milan’s airports, Nice Airport and Paris Charles De Gaulle have all signed up to EASA’s safety charter and will trial its recommendations.

Aegean Airlines, easyJet and Wizz Air are on board too. EASA says other firms are welcome to sign up.

“I am delighted to welcome these first implementers of our guidelines and charter,” said EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky. “These airlines and airports will lead the way in applying the recommended measures and will share their experiences with us.”

He added that the exercise “will help us to reach the ultimate goal of harmonised, health-safe travel across Europe and to destinations beyond”.

EU aviation regulator prepares to get planes back in skies

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) on Monday (4 May) started advising airports on how to resume operations properly, after the coronavirus outbreak grounded a majority of flights. Operators will have to check for debris and wild animals, among a slew of other points.

The main recommendations made by the EASA-ECDC guidelines are for operators and travel firms to facilitate physical distancing wherever possible and for passengers to wear face masks throughout their journeys.

Travellers are also encouraged not to come to airports if they are suffering from any coronavirus-related symptoms such as fever, cough, sudden loss of smell or shortness of breath.

But the guidelines do not force airlines to implement social-distancing measures on board aircraft. EU officials have instead put their faith in plane air filtration systems and personal protection equipment.

European airlines made it clear before the recommendations were issued that it would be impossible for them to turn a profit if seating plans were forced to observe the same 1.5-2 metre distancing recommended in other scenarios.

Some carriers have decided to block out the middle seat on some routes regardless.

Europe’s airlines rebel against social-distancing jet set

Coronavirus social-distancing measures will not work on board aircraft, Europe’s airlines say, as the aviation industry and governments consider how to get planes back in the sky. But carriers elsewhere are willing to trial new ideas.

In practice

Brussels Airport announced that it would join EASA’s pilot scheme and its operators said in a statement they hope to help the aviation regulator develop new best practices.

“Brussels Airport is preparing actively for an expected increase in passenger traffic as soon as intra-European borders will open up again. Systematic body temperature controls of the passengers will be set up as from 15 June,” said airport CEO Arnaud Feist.

The hub at Zaventem is installing thermal cameras that will detect passengers suspected of carrying the coronavirus and alert security staff to anyone that flouts the mask-wearing rule.

Fixed cameras outside the departure hall will flag anyone with a temperature over 38 degrees Celsius, while mobile scanners will be used at arrivals. Anyone not travelling will be denied access to terminal buildings.

The airport’s operators have also revamped queuing systems, installed hand sanitisers and increased the frequency of cleaning shifts to keep toilets and trolleys free of contaminants. A disinfection robot has also been deployed to clean the floors.

Brussels Airport’s long-term future is still in doubt, given its role as a hub for national carrier Brussels Airlines, which is in significant financial trouble due to the virus crisis. The Belgian government’s talks with parent company Lufthansa have centred around preserving jobs at both the airline and the travel hub.

Brussels Airlines to cut staff, fleet and destinations

Brussels Airline announced a major restructuring of its business on Tuesday (12 May), including job cuts that could affect 1,000 employees, a reduction in fleet size and a smaller network of destinations.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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