Today my thoughts emerged from a recent experience I had during my first trip after the COVID-19 lockdown. Last week during my first rail travel, I wondered why are the safety requirements much stricter for air travel than for rail/ground travel.

During my journey, I was a bit surprised by how other passengers arrived on their spot and directly removed their masks during the rest of the trip. One of the passengers especially caught my attention as she was not wearing a mask, enjoying her food distributed all over a three shared place table. And then met an acquittance, and both decided to stand up and talk in the middle of the hallway talking for more than 45 minutes. Again, there were no masks or social distancing whatsoever.

Are the safety rules applicable to all modes of transport?

In my whole discomfort with the situation, I started asking myself questions to understand what was happening and why there was no one controlling this situation. What is the difference between being in an aircraft and a closed train carriage or closed bus?

Some of you might say, trains usually have windows, and therefore air can circulate. Let me tell you this was not the case; high-speed trains don’t allow the possibility of their windows to be opened. Others might think that train journeys are shorter. However, this is not necessarily true when your train ride is more than 30 mins. 

Why are travel requirements, restrictions, and conditions stricter for airlines than for rail/land travel?

Additionally, it came into my mind that while being on a train, you can meet more people as people go on and off during the different stops, and therefore the contact is even higher. Consequently, I wondered, why are travel requirements, restrictions, and conditions stricter for airlines than for rail/land travel?

What about buses?

What about the buses? Buses also are usually very crowded due to the low prices, and social distancing for sure is very complicated. The journey can become even longer for certain passengers than a long-haul flight. Still, regulations seem to be not as strict as for airlines. 

Regulations for three of the main players: Airlines, Trains, and Buses

First, to understand the scope, I want to have an overview of the requirements for all three travel modalities. For this, I took examples of three different companies’ regulations to check the general conditions. One rail company, one bus company, and one airline. 

Rail

  • Staff is required to wear a mask on short and long-distance trains.
  • Passengers should cover mouth-nose in the suburban trains and trains, in the station, on the platform, and at the stops. 
  • Staff currently check all tickets on sight and scan on the passenger’s smartphones or printed paper tickets. 
  • For commuters: with the digital subscription, both purchase and ticket control can be carried out completely contactless.
  • Trains are expected to be cleaned regularly, especially the handles and surfaces in the boarding areas and at the station.
  • Disinfectant dispensers installed in the toilets in addition to the possibility of washing hands. 
  • Wherever it is technically possible, the doors of the trains will open the doors automatically. 

Bus

  • Mandatory mouth and nose protection for all passengers
  • Entry and exit are expected only via the back door
  • Safety distance must be maintained when entering and leaving the vehicle
  • Hand disinfectant is provided for all passengers
  • Contactless check-in through the digital ticket control
  • Updated safety instructions and notes by the drivers
  • Locking of the complete first row of seats to ensure the minimum distance from the driver’s seat
  • No snack sale onboard
  • In some cases, Toilets on board remain closed

Air

  • For passengers’ safety, each passenger should check that he/she is not experiencing any common Covid-19 symptoms, including fever, cough, and loss of taste. At check-in, the passenger should confirm that within the past 14 days, he/she has not been in contact with anyone testing positive for Covid-19 nor tested positive him/herself.
  • Passengers should store their contact details to be contacted during their trip if necessary.
  • A vital feature of the new rules is the reduction of carry-on baggage to a single item.
  • Passengers should bring their face masks. 
  • Passengers may also carry hand sanitizer but taking into account the regulations for traveling with liquids in your carry-on luggage.
  • Many shops and restaurants at the airports may still be closed.
  • Upon boarding, the airline will provide the passengers with disinfectant wipes.
  • Passengers are only allowed to use the airline’s disinfectant wipes for cleaning the surfaces in and around the seats.
  • Passengers should use our automatic boarding gates for contactless boarding.
  • Passengers must wear their face mask at all times while onboard, as well as crew members.
  • Air filters allow a complete air exchange within about three minutes. The resulting excellent air quality. 
  • If the occupancy rate is low, seats will be allocated as widely as possible throughout the cabin.
  • To minimize contact between people on board, the current in-flight service has been adapted and simplified.

But additionally, for airlines, there is a 35-page Guidance for Cabin Operations During and Post Pandemic Edition 3 – 05 Jun 2020 from the IATA, indicating all safety regulations the airlines and airports have to take into account. 

Some notorious differences are perceived, and it is essential to understand why

I don’t want to generate any misunderstanding with my questioning. I want to know why airlines are required to have more strict regulations than other transportation means, having, in some instances, similar conditions. As we can see, the differences are notorious.

For airlines, passengers are even expected to notice if they had contact with a positive case or if they have been tested positive themselves. This rule does not apply to any land transport that I have used so far. Therefore, I wonder why there are many more requirements for airlines. Because of this, I decided to do a bit more research to understand the reasons.

I found a fascinating article from Feargus O’Sullivan on CityLab, Bloomberg Philanthropies indicating results of multiple studies and researches. Summarized, that show that safe travel in mass transit, focuses more on distance from other passengers and the correct uses of masks, than actually ventilation systems and surfaces.

There was an interesting quote that indicates that the higher risk is related to social distancing and not precisely on ventilation systems. “Wearing masks can do much to mitigate the risk of this kind of proximity, says Tang. … Mass transit’s primary difference is that you may face a greater challenge maintaining enough distance from others. Even if you get on a relatively empty train, you may find that a crowd enters at a subsequent stop. So what can you do if you still have to ride? The advice here will sound familiar: Wear a mask, keep your distance, and don’t touch your face.” (CityLab, May 2020) 

Therefore, as we can see, the risk is also for all mass transportation, including city transport. Regulations should be similar and strict for all and not a particular industry. 

How to transform social distancing and masks into relevant measures?

Therefore, if social distancing and masks are the main factors, airlines should focus on the following 7 KPIs and all security measures currently implemented for safe travel. 

  • Aircraft SD (Social Distancing) Capacity: As for Economy Class, the seats are very close to each other, and airlines are considering allowing the middle seat to be empty. In this case, the aircraft capacity should be a relevant KPI.
  • Capacity Reduced: How much from the regular aircraft capacity is reduced with a social distance capacity. This KPI will allow us to understand how much capacity is required to meet the actual demand. 

As capacities per aircraft might be expected to be reduced, airlines might consider increasing frequencies to the most demanded destinations, to mitigate the capacity reduction. Therefore, there can be two additional KPIs indicating:

  • Flight Legs increase Continental: Percentage increase of legs in continental routes
  • Flight Legs increase Intercontinental: Percentage increase of legs in intercontinental routes

Now regarding passengers, crews, and processes, there are some other KPIs that can be relevant for a Post-Pandemic period.

  • Passengers with Rejected Boarding- Reason Mask: As some passengers are denied boarding due to documentation, in this case, there can be the possibility to have passengers who are denied boarding for not carrying or refusing to wear a mask. Why is this KPI essential to understand if regulations are being adequately communicated to passengers and that all passengers are receiving the correct information previous to their trip? 
  • Passenger Onboard Incidents: Based on my personal experience is very common to be uncomfortable with the mask, especially for more extended period times. As I’ve seen it on my train journey, many people remove their masks inside the train after some minutes on board. This could also be the case for a flight. In this case, it would be necessary to understand how many incidents are presented in each flight leg, where the crew experience incidents with passengers who refuse to keep their masks during the flight. 
  • Boarding Time: Boarding requires as well as social distancing. It is always common that passengers decide to stand in line close to each other to board the aircraft and tend to wait in the boarding tunnel very close to each other. The boarding might need to extend their time to be able to maintain the social distance required. 

Conclusion

In conclusion, it can be seen that safety regulations for all modes of transport should be similar and controlled for all types. The need for social distancing and mask usage should be the same in all sorts of mass transport. Therefore, there should not be some market players with more regulations than others to restart their operations. In case you have more information regarding this topic, I would be happy to hear your thoughts, insights, and experience. 


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Consultant

Camila is passionate about aviation, data analytics, and a travel addict. With more than 7 years of experience in the aviation industry, she’s constantly providing solutions to different airlines in Germany, Spain, Saudi Arabia and has experience in several countries in South America. Her main focus consists on KPIs implementation, visualization, and data analysis, with the objective to increase airlines’ operational awareness through the use of real-time data.