Asian Airlines Battle SARS

Singapore, China Southern, Cathay Pacific boost sanitation, detection programs

By: Jerry Chandler

Things have never been this bad for Asian airlines. SARS, not the Iraqi War, is the reason.

In an attempt to recoup some public confidence in air transport as a safe means of conveyance, a number of Asian carriers have instituted strict new measures aimed at stifling the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.

Singapore Airlines, whose Asian business is taking a big hit, is providing masks for all fliers and crew on flights departing from Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Hanoi, Taiwan and Kaohsiung. The carrier is stepping up disinfection of its fleet with a solution recommended by the World Health Organization. Armrests, tray tables, overhead bins, and toilets are all getting the treatment.

China Southern Airlines, headquarted in Guangzhou, the epicenter of the epidemic, has created a SARS Protection & Work Force Task Force. Among measures already undertaken, China Southern said it’s constantly disinfecting ticket counters, lounges, and check-in areas, “from early morning to late evening every day.”

The disinfection doesn’t end there. All in-flight equipment, including seats and tray tables, are disinfected before and after each flight. Prior to each flight, ground staff clean and disinfect all vent holes in the aircraft.

Blankets and pillows are used for one flight only. All China Southern flight attendants are wearing single-use gloves while serving in-flight meals.

Each aircraft is equipped with facemasks and gloves for passengers who want them.

China Southern said any passengers suspected of exhibiting SARS symptoms will be denied boarding, and any China Southern employee showing possible symptoms will be sent to a pre-designate hospital and quarantined.

Cathay Pacific’s home port, of course, is Hong Kong. And no other city has suffered as much the tourist and business magnet.

Cathay’s measures include making sure passengers showing SARS symptoms don’t board their aircraft, exchanging cabin air every three to five minutes and filtering that air through special “High Efficiency Particle Air” (HEPA) devices. Boeing said HEPA filters trap “more than 99.9 percent” of airborne contaminants.

Cathay is cleaning aircraft in accordance with procedures issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Galley counters, passenger tray tables, seat armrests, seatbacks, light and panel controls, passenger tray tables, toilet counters, and other common surfaces are disinfected following each stop.

As with China Southern, surgical facemasks are available to passengers and crew for the asking.

Should the cabin crew identify a passenger exhibiting SARS symptoms during the flight, they’ve been instructed to quarantine them in a specially designated lavatory and give them a facemask. Cathay crews can get medical input from a physician 24/7 via Medlink, an air to ground medical communication system.

Dr. Rose Ong, Cathay Pacific’s medical services manager, said, “We will continue to monitor the evolving scientific data concerning the virus and will adjust our policies and procedures in light of this advice.”

U.S. Flight attendants think all airlines should follow the lead of Asian carriers. They’re requesting that the Federal Aviation Administration issue an emergency order requiring that airlines:

* provide flight attendants with non-latex gloves and masks on flights to and from high-risk areas;

* make in-flight announcements to passengers, and further communicate the importance of thorough and regular hand washing, and not touching one’s face;

* develop, implement, and enforce passenger screening standards as recommended by the World Health Organization and Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.