Before the official “SMS era”, IATA Operational Safety Audit – IOSA, required preparedness for
possible case(s) of communicable disease (or other public health risk) on board. Emergency response
procedures defined in Emergency Response Manual (ERM) should be in compliance with applicable
international standards and regulations (ICAO, IATA, WHO) and national requirements (EASA,
European Aviation Crisis Communication Cell - EACC, CAA and National Institute of Public Health).
Real implementation of these requirements in most airlines actually started for the first time as a part
of response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014. System established at that time in our company (and on
the state level) has been later tested (and improved) in some real cases of transporting passengers
infected by measles virus.
I believe that experience and lessons learned from the Ebola outbreak shared in this blog might be
useful for establishing safety controls for novel COVID-19 disease once this suspended and drastically
reduced airlines operations ends.
ORGANISATION, EMERGENCY RESPONSE AND SAFETY MEASURES
In our company Safety Manager was responsible for the establishment of Emergency Response
Policy and Plan, while Emergency Director was responsible for operational implementation of the
airline preparedness plan. Communication Chart in case of suspected communicable disease (or other
public health risk) on board of an aircraft has been clearly defined; starting with primary info, followed
by emergency response activating phase inside the first hour of the system response and stabilised in
form of established emergency communication.
Crew members, specially Cabin crew members in details, were clearly instructed and trained how to:
(a) identify travelers suspected of having a communicable disease, (b) apply personal hygiene
measures to reduce risk, (c) get medical advice, (d) relocate infected passenger, (e) use appropriate
first-aid equipment and supplies, (f) implement general sanitary precautions, (g) use Universal
Precaution Kit - UPK and Personal Protective Equipment- PPE for crew and passengers, (h) relocate
cabin crew duties, (i) clean-up of affected areas and disposal of contaminated supplies and
Passenger locator cards - PLC with filling instructions printed on the back side of PLC have been
invented to collect on board passengers’ contact information in order to be able to contact them later,
Pilots were instructed to notify ATC of any onboard suspected communicable disease, or other public
health risk, so that the state health authority at the planned destination can be advised appropriately
and in a timely manner.
Communication links with other service providers (e.g. Passenger and Cargo Handling Agents,
Maintenance Organizations etc.) have been defined in order to provide them all known information
about suspected disease and required protective equipment/precautions to be implemented, as
recommended by medical experts from health authority.
If aircraft disinfection was required, appropriate competent companies were contracted to
clean/disinfect the defined areas/surfaces using methods/procedures recommended by the health
Also if needed, applicable maintenance organizations were engaged to remove re-circulated air filters
or to vent off vacuum waste tanks or to perform any other required maintenance action.
During the Ebola outbreak it was extremely important having 24/7 available competent expert(s) (in
most countries available only on state level), providing detailed guidance on how to respond in specific
emergency occurrence to avoid overreacting/underreacting due to lack of expert knowledge and
When we made our very first top level Safety Risk Assessment - SRA for Ebola, the comment from the
expert was that we did a very good job for Super-Ebola which would spread in the form of aerosol.
At the beginning we didn’t have clear answers to some important questions: (a) What might be
considered as safety distance? 1 meter, 2 meters, 3 …, (b) What about outdoor distance and how it is
affected by wind speed and turbulence, (c) How long can Ebola virus survive on different surfaces and
how this is affected by temperature and humidity … . With the knowledge provided by domain experts
we performed several iterations of our SRA until we finally established effective, reliable and
practically doable safety controls.
For illustration, one of the very first controls considered highly effective was a medical skafander, but
we discarded it very quickly, because it was not practical for onboard use. Even a trained pair of
medical staff (one dressing it, another instructing and supervising her/him) needed about 20 minutes
to dress it and about 25 minutes to undress it.
First lesson learned from the real situation was that one of the most important safety controls is to
have ONE & ONLY ONE official communication system/protocol applicable for all internal and external
communication on all levels. If effective, there will be no panic, because all people involved will be
confident that the situation is managed by a multidisciplinary team of experts and responsible decision
makers, resulting in trust and therefore reducing influence of fake news and other pathological
opinions available on social media and media in general.
Availability of competent domain expert(s) needed for immediate reaction on operational events and
proactively for SRAs are two main reasons why to integrate the company emergency team with a state
emergency response system. This also applies for all others stakeholders need to be well prepared
before you open a passenger door of your aircraft with a suspected case of communicable disease on
Continuation of operation with greatly reduced staff numbers has also been planned to be managed
as part of Emergency Response taking into account actual external and internal circumstances.
However, nobody thought at that time that this might mean what we experience today with the novel
COVID-19 virus, when not only one airline, but almost all airlines completely (or in a dramatic extent)
stopped their operations due to greatly reduced numbers of passengers.
Aviation Safety and Compliance Consultant