Planes flying into S'pore can be quite full with no safe distancing between passengers

But it's okay.

Belmont Lay | January 03, 2021, 09:03 PM

It might come as a surprise to many Singaporeans, but flights are still coming into Singapore these days and they can be full of passengers -- with no safe distancing measures on board the plane.

Revelation: First-person account

This revelation was made known in a recent Straits Times forum letter ("Forum: Lack of safe distancing on plane") on Dec. 14, 2020.

It was written by a passenger who provided a first-person account, having returned to Singapore from London on a Singapore Airlines plane.

The forum letter writer wrote:

I recently travelled from London back to Singapore with Singapore Airlines. I was more than a little surprised to discover that the flight was full. On a plane that seats 253 passengers, there were hardly any empty seats on board.

No requirement for minimum distance between passengers

The letter writer further wrote that when a staff on board the plane was queried if safe distancing was feasible given such close proximity everyone was to one another, the reply was that "there was no requirement imposed on the airline to ensure any minimum distance between passengers".

After returning to Singapore, the letter writer underwent the mandatory stay-home notice -- and was informed that there were two Covid-19 positive cases on the same flight.

The letter writer took this as validation of being right that the situation on the plane felt wrong:

On the 11th day of my compulsory stay-home notice and one day after I was tested for Covid-19, I received a call from the Ministry of Health. One person who sat near me and two in total on the same flight had tested positive for the virus.

The letter ended by calling the situation on passenger-filled planes "a serious loophole", with a demand for an explanation on how safe distancing and other Covid-19 safety measures are managed.

Official response

A response to the letter (Forum: Comprehensive measures to protect aircraft passengers from Covid-19) was published on Dec. 19, some five days later.

Alan Foo, the acting senior director of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore's Acting Senior Director of the Safety Regulation Group, wrote to reassure the forum writer that there is proper science behind packing planes with people.

Airplane cabins, Foo explained, are highly controlled spaces.

Cabin air in Singapore aircraft is fully refreshed every two to three minutes, double the pre-pandemic frequency, he wrote, which is part of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore's (CAAS) requirements.

The most reassuring bit in his response was that 99.9 per cent of particles the size of the Sars-CoV-2 virus gets removed as fresh air introduced into the aircraft goes through hospital-grade high-efficiency particulate air filters.

Foo added that aerosol particles in aircraft are typically removed five to six times faster than recommended for modern hospital operating rooms, citing a United States Department of Defence study on the topic.

Dubious statistics

However, less reassuring is a statistic that Foo cited.

He wrote, right after his opener for his response:

The International Air Transport Association has noted that globally, only 44 out of 1.2 billion passengers were reported to have been potentially infected with Covid-19 while on a flight. This translates to a very low incidence rate.

This 44 out of 1.2 billion passengers figure is dubious at best, as ST had already reported much earlier on Oct. 26, 2020, that such probability is not a good reflection of how infectious Covid-19 is on board planes.

The reason is simply because there was no way 1.2 billion swab tests of passengers who took planes were carried out to assess the definite odds of getting Covid-19 from flying.

ST even reported that David Freedman, an United States infectious diseases specialist, told Reuters that Iata's calculation "was bad math" as most of the passengers were not tested.

The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, Freedman added.

The World Health Organisation has said that the lack of extensive documentation of in-flight transmission does not mean that it does not happen, but acknowledged that the risk appears to be very low.

So, now you know: Planes can be filled to the brim but the environment -- with its hyper fresh air -- is still safe because passengers have to keep their mask on and limit interaction with one another, despite being in close proximity for hours on end.

Top photo via Unsplash