I am not a doctor, epidemiologist, or virologist. I am, however someone with a good understanding of risk assessment and generally pragmatic approach to things so I thought I'd put down in black and white my thoughts on how to potentially think about re-opening some of the things we love; specifically theatre, and aviation (here).
Here I discuss my thoughts on the gradual return to a 'new normal' in General Aviation following the changes brought about by the 2020 Covid-19 Pandemic. It's designed to provoke discussion, and I look forward to seeing how far off the mark this is.
Social Distancing, how close is too close?
Firstly, throughout all this, keep in mind that the actual distance for "social distancing" recommended by the EU and by the WHO is 1m, not 2m.
"According to the currently available evidence, transmission through smaller droplet nuclei (airborne transmission) that propagate through air at distances longer than 1 meter is limited to aerosol generating procedures during clinical care of COVID-19 patients." – World Health Organisation
The 2m separation distance in the UK has been created on the basis that people are known not to be good at estimating distance; by telling people to remain 2m apart, chances are they will actually remain 1m apart.
I expect that there’ll be a three stage return to General Aviation flying schools / clubs;
With minimal staffing and maintaining social distancing as best as possible and good cleaning of aircraft, private hire to those who are symptom-free could return relatively soon, after guidance on 'unnecessary travel' is removed and general unrestricted leisure travel is permitted.
This would open up an immediate income stream for flying schools, but with minimum overheads, allowing pilots to maintain currency. This is ultimately is in everyone’s interest, including from a safety point of view, as skills atrophy is a significant threat in aviation to pilots' proficiency.
Aircraft would be cleaned/sterilised between every flight, with no shared use of things like headsets (if the pilot is carrying passengers e.g. other household members, they should have their own headsets for this - I know someone who uses relatively cheap headsets for passengers, they don't all need Bose A20s or Lightspeed Zulus!).
Instructors could largely remain furloughed, but still be able to more easily maintain their own currency as the school is open, and it ensures that aircraft keep flying, maintenance can continue etc.
There's a consideration, of course, that most flying schools have currency requirements for private hire. The exposure/transmission risk is already low, and can be further mitigated with PPE such as N95/FFP2 respirator masks. Instructors may wish to consider something like the GVS Elipse P3, an inexpensive FFP3 respirator that is far more comfortable to wear for a prolonged time, and has replaceable filters, readily available from most DIY stores for about £15.
Typical "surgical masks" are not suitable as PPE, they do not protect the wearer, only those around them. Rather than suggest the pilot/student wears a 'mask', ensuring the instructor has an appropriate respirator ensures their safety. I personally think this should be at the discretion of the instructor rather than mandated, but PPE should be available.
Whilst this sort of PPE would be obtrusive and uncomfortable in normal instruction, short check flights typically require less communication between pilot and instructor, and in most cases would be at most 30 minutes in close contact.
Obviously, in keeping with most public spaces, hand santitiser should be provided and everyone encouraged to wash their hands or use sanitiser before going to, and on coming back from, the aircraft.
People can catch COVID-19 only from others who have the virus through inhaling small droplets from infected people who cough or sneeze or through touching contaminated surfaces and then touching nose, mouth or eyes. [EU Guidance Leaflet]
Therefore, as long as you do not touch your nose, mouth, or eyes during flight - even in the unlikely a surface is contaminated - there is effectively no risk. This shouldn't be difficult to maintain during a short check fight (indeed with one hand on the yoke, and the other on the throttle or poking at avionics, and a mic right in my face I generally don't think I ever touch my face during flight!)
On the subject of cleaning aircraft, manufacturers like Garmin have already issued guidance on cleaning their avionics (basically use between 70% and 91% alcohol), the CAA also provide guidance on how to clean an aircraft, and what substances can be used safely, although it's probably worth testing to ensure whatever sanitisers or cleaning products used to not affect the plastics of the flight controls.
It may also be worth considering techniques like foggers, which fill the cabin with a highly permeating fog containing an anti-viral agent, as a regular cleaning method.
Learning to Fly....
Some time thereafter, instruction for regular students could be reintroduced, probably with additional checks that we'll see elsewhere - perhaps things like using IR thermometers might be prudent, with anyone testing above 38ºC being asked to return home and self-isolate, not returning for 14 days.
At this time, I expect we should be at a stage when masks or respirators are no longer recommended in most environments. Personally, I think masks in flight training would be problematic, as it does impede both comfort and communication.
Obviously, the same aircraft cleaning processes should still apply, and all students should be long-term committed students, have their own headsets etc, and not sharing anything (headsets, charts, pens, flight computers etc) with their instructor or other students.
A good comparison for when this could be started is when driving instructors return to work, it's broadly the same.
Air Experience / Introduction to Flight
Finally, further down the line, likely in line with when restaurants and leisure venues reopen; trial flights, experience flights etc could resume with some likely changes (headset sterilisation, foam mic covers perhaps being treated as a consumable in the short term etc.) but this feels further away.
The bottom line is this is all an exercise in risk assessment. The virus isn’t going to magically disappear overnight, no matter how long restrictions are in place, we will have to live with this risk (mitigated) for at least a year I expect, possibly much much longer depending on the success of vaccines and new treatments.
We're all missing flight, and keen to return to the skies as soon as possible, but we must be able to ensure this is done as safely as possible, minimising risk. It's equally important to realise, however, that the risk will never be zero.
Pilots are no strangers to risk assessment, there's a risk involved with every flight, every car journey, every time we step outside the house. This is another risk that now has to be considered.
“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” – Leonardo da Vinci
And return we will.