Safe flying during COVID-19; Aviation experts exhort to follow safety measures in flights and at airports

The first edition of the Burjeel Medical Aviation Congress deliberated on measures to mitigate health issues among aviation professionals, particularly during the pandemic

Dubai: At a time when people are avoiding travel due to fear of contracting COVID-19, a medical aviation conference held here reiterated that air travel is the safest mode during the pandemic.

“The risk of contracting an infection is very low during air travel,” said Dr. John Chalkley, a senior aviation medical expert. “All aviation companies are following an international protocol and have adopted all safety measures to ensure the health and well-being of the passengers,” he added speaking at the first edition of the Burjeel Medical Aviation Congress organised by Burjeel Hospital, Dubai, a unit of VPS Healthcare.

Dr. Chalkley stated that his conclusions are drawn from several studies, which indicate the effectiveness of safety measures in the aircraft. However, he emphasized that the focus should be on community guidelines at the airport and strict adherence to it by the public.

“Airlines have several safety measures, and one of the crucial among them is the high-efficiency particulate air filtration (HEPA) system. It ensures high airflow, allows for the exchange of cabin air every 2-3 minutes, and filters close to 99% of virus particles. It has been proven through reviews that the spreading of infection in an aircraft can be minimized if all passengers are wearing a face mask properly.”

The reviews to mitigate transmission of the illness onboard have found that proper masking can yield desirable results to a large extent. Transmission through droplets and being close to an infected person in an aircraft possess the highest risk. However, several studies suggest that aerosol exposure is minimal even during long-duration flights.

“Risk of transmission on board is low for the reasons highlighted, and it seems that the bigger risk is not infection on board, but rather importation of infection and community spread, due to carriage of people unknowingly incubating COVID-19.”

Aviation medical experts who attended the medical aviation congress exhorted the passengers to strictly follow the general safety precautions put up by the airline industry and respective governments. “The International Air Transport Association (IATA) considers flying to be safe. However, IATA  recommends wearing a mask when flying and following the biosafety measures implemented by the individual airlines. COVID-19 tests within 1-3 days before flying and 3-5 days after the travel is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These recommendations may vary from country to country,” they added.

The conference brought together like-minded health professionals and experts in the field. The conference discussed in-depth on the latest developments in aviation medicine and medical specialties assisting aviation doctors in preventing and treating common health problems faced by aviation professionals.

Mental health was also a topic for the discussion. Aviation medical practitioners and other healthcare professionals should proactively discuss work-related and personal difficulties due to Covid-19 with pilots and cabin crew, the conference maintained. “De-stigmatizing mental health issues and encouraging access to support programs or specialist mental health support is essential,” added experts.

Professor Dr. Erik Hohmann, Conference Chairman and Consultant Orthopedic & Trauma Surgeon, Sports Physician at Burjeel Hospital, Dubai, said that over 50% of health problems in the aviation industry are related to musculoskeletal issues.

“Aviation professionals such as pilots and cabin crew cannot return to work unless they are fit to perform all required duties. Treating aviation professionals is very similar to treating professional athletes. A focused and prompt team approach with a dedicated team including orthopedic surgeons, aviation medical examiners, and rehabilitation professionals well-versed in treating professional athletes guarantees the best outcome and fastest return to work,”  he added.

Burjeel Medical Aviation Congress is the first aviation congress held in Dubai catering to medical professionals from the aviation industry and providing all thelatest developments in aviation medicine, orthopedics, and other important aspects of flying such as crew management, fatigue, and aviation safety. More than 100 aviation and healthcare experts from the Middle East attended the conference.