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Air travel slowly recovers during pandemic amid efforts to sanitize, social distance

MIAMI – While flying can increase travelers’ risk of exposure to a coronavirus infection, air travel is slowly recovering.

Cameron Emerson said Wednesday’s flight out of Miami International Airport was his first since the coronavirus pandemic started to impact South Florida in March. He is 19 years old and he doesn’t have an underlying health condition, so his risk of suffering from a severe disease if infected is lower.

“A lot of people are spaced out,” Emerson said about social distancing at MIA with the help of markings on the floors and on seats.

Transportation Security Administration reported that while last year there were 2.2 million checkpoint travelers on April 14; this year there were 87,534. Fliers like Emerson are increasing those numbers. On Sept. 1, there were 516,068, as opposed to the 2 million checkpoint travelers reported that same day last year.

Plexiglass divisions at check-in counters are part of airlines’ efforts to adapt to the new needs of the pandemic. Face masks are required. Emerson said all of that made him feel safer even though he knows he still needs to avoid infection to avoid spreading a virus that can still be deadly for members of his family.

“I’m kind of iffy about it, but, you just got to do what you got to do,” Emerson said.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes. But sitting within 6 feet of others, sometimes for hours, may increase the risk of getting COVID-19.

Luciano Macagno, of Delta Airlines, said fliers like Emerson need to know the airline’s first priority is safety.

“Now we’re boarding from the back of the aircraft to the front of the aircraft to minimize touch-points, and, for now, no one sits in the middle seat,” said Macagno, the managing director of Latin America, Caribbean and South Florida.

Macagno also said Delta Airlines is focusing on cleanliness from airport door to airline seat. To do so, planes are undergoing a “triple-layer cleaning” that involves electrostatic spray disinfection. The system turns disinfectant liquid into aerosols. A charge moves each droplet to surfaces.

The US Environmental Protection Agency evaluated the effectiveness of electrostatic sprayers and concluded these work best on pre-cleaned surfaces.

“An electrostatic spray is used throughout the cabin and on the jetway,” said Macagno. “That completely sanitizes the entire aircraft.”

Despite the slow increases, the International Air Transport Association estimates airlines around the world will lose $84.3 billion this year and won’t recover until 2024. This projection includes a $23.1 billion loss in North America and a $4 billion loss in Latin America.

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