Will 'sanitised travel' keep you safe while travelling amid Covid-19?


A passenger dressed in a PPE suit checking in for his flight at KLIA recently. It is common to see passengers wearing some sort of protection coveralls at the airport these days. - Photos: AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Stephanie Aeria travels about five times a year. She would make three local trips to places like Ipoh in Perak, Melaka and Penang. And depending on her budget, she might go on two international holidays.

All that has changed with the ongoing coronavirus crisis. These days, Aeria, 29, is thinking twice about leaving her home in Selangor.

“Despite all the precautions taken, you just never know where you’ll catch the virus. It could be from the airport. It could be from the plane. Or it could be from the country you’re going to, ” she says.

However, Aeria, who is self-employed, admits her mind might be put at ease if the travel industry implements strict hygiene and safety measures.

The coronavirus has taken a huge impact on the travel sector, perhaps even more so than other industries.

   Travellers need to maintain strict personal hygiene and take precautionary measures such as wearing face masks to stay safe from Covid-19.  — FAIHAN GHANI/The StarTravellers need to maintain strict personal hygiene and take precautionary measures such as wearing face masks to stay safe from Covid-19. — FAIHAN GHANI/The Star

Following the decision by the World Health Organization (WHO) to label Covid-19 a pandemic in March, countries implemented travel bans, closed borders and temporarily shut down their tourism sector.

Airlines were forced to ground their planes and significantly shrink their network, while hotels found their lobbies eerily deserted.

Since then, however, some countries like China and Spain have begun to restart tourism. In Malaysia, Sabah was the first state to reopen domestic tourism activities, during the conditional movement control order (CMCO) period.

Temperature screening is done at every possible checkpoint at the airport, right up to the boarding gate.  Temperature screening is done at every possible checkpoint at the airport, right up to the boarding gate.

To support the recovery of the tourism sector, travel and hospitality companies have come up with initiatives to safeguard travellers’ wellbeing.

This has paved the way for the concept of “sanitised travel”, which is the idea of maintaining health and safety measures throughout a journey.

Editor's note: Scroll down to watch video of 'What will 'sanitised travel' look like?'.

Is it safe to fly?

Airline marketing strategy firm SimpliFlying proposed some sanitised travel measures for the aviation sector in a report recently. These include the introduction of an “immunity passport”, the sanitisation of luggage and on-board distancing.

But for many frequent flyers, the thought of being in a confined aircraft on a long-haul journey, in the age of social distancing, would still be unnerving.

   Every section of the airport, including the conveyor belts where luggage and bags are passed through, will be disinfected periodically each day.Every section of the airport, including the conveyor belts where luggage and bags are passed through, will be disinfected periodically each day.

That fear is understandable, says Malaysia Airlines.

“With the absence of a vaccine for Covid-19, confidence in flying will not be restored. Hence the importance of ensuring sanitised travel across all touchpoints, ” the company says in a statement.

Like most airlines around the world, health and safety measures taken during the pandemic have become the new norm for Malaysia Airlines. These measures will be carried out until a cure is found.

“We uphold high standards in cleaning and disinfecting our aircraft and work closely with the Health Ministry to ensure we follow their guidance on health precautions related to Covid-19, ” says the statement.

ALSO READ: Covid-19: What's work like for pilots, hoteliers and travel agents in Malaysia?

In the unfortunate event where a suspected Covid-19 passenger is found to have been on board, the entire row where the passenger was seated and its two surrounding rows from the front and back will be disinfected.

Besides cleaning the affected surfaces, all other materials such as pillows and magazines that could have been possibly touched by the passenger will be disposed of.

   The interior of a plane’s cabin and all its equipment, including seat belts, are now wiped down with disinfectant.The interior of a plane’s cabin and all its equipment, including seat belts, are now wiped down with disinfectant.

AirAsia Malaysia chief executive officer Riad Asmat assures that it is safe to fly amid the pandemic.

“Air travel is one of the safest modes of travel, especially with the deep cleaning, sanitising and disinfecting that our aircraft and its cabin go through daily, ” he says.

Riad explains that aircraft are fitted with High Efficiency Particulate Arresters (HEPA) filters normally used in hospitals, which filter out 99.999% of dust particles and airborne contaminants such as viruses and bacteria.

It’s interesting to note that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) does not support the mandating of social distancing onboard. It states: “Experience of airlines during the pandemic suggests that the risk of transmission between passengers and on board is low, possibly due to the lack of face-to-face contact and the direction and nature of cabin air flow.”

   The regular usage of hand sanitisers will be a norm moving forward for travellers and travel operators.The regular usage of hand sanitisers will be a norm moving forward for travellers and travel operators.

IATA adds that mask-wearing by passengers and crew are sufficient to reduce the already-low risk.

However, both Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia are taking other necessary precautions to curb Covid-19. These include temperature checks, mandatory face masks for passengers and crew, social distancing on ground and strict food safety requirements.

ALSO READ: Should Malaysians be travelling amid the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak?

Safer and cleaner stay for hotel guests

Aircraft and airports are not the only places with heightened safety measures. Hotels, too, are reviewing their housekeeping policies and introducing other measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Closer to home, the Malaysian Association of Hotels (MAH) will introduce a “clean and safe” certification to boost confidence among guests.

“Hotels are also planning ahead to ensure all efforts to clean and sanitise the hotel are being documented according to the Health Ministry and industry best practices, ” says MAH chief executive officer Yap Lip Seng.

Editor's note: Scroll down for tips to stay safe while travelling amid Covid-19.

Some hotels have introduced deep cleaning and sanitisation of public places and guests rooms. Other steps taken include using hospital grade disinfectants, temperature screening at entrances and installing acrylic partition at reception desks to maintain safe distancing.

   Partitions have been installed at some hotels’ reception desks to maintain safe distancing. — Marriott InternationalPartitions have been installed at some hotels’ reception desks to maintain safe distancing. — Marriott International

Marriott International area vice president (Singapore, Malaysia & Maldives) Rivero Delgado says the environment for hotels will be different as domestic tourism slowly resumes.

“While the situation is still quite fluid, it is encouraging to see that domestic borders are starting to open up. The new normal will be different, there will be enhanced safety protocols to assure our guests that they are in a secure environment, ” she says.

Guests will need to brace themselves for a new normal when they check-in to a hotel, Delgado adds.

“We expect the heightened awareness of health and hygiene. The enhanced sanitation procedures currently being implemented by hotels are likely to remain in place.

“The wearing of masks and gloves could continue in the medium-term, depending on market conditions and government mandates, ” she says.

Housekeeping at hotels use hospital-grade disinfectant, adhering to stricter hygiene standards. — Marriott InternationalHousekeeping at hotels use hospital-grade disinfectant, adhering to stricter hygiene standards. — Marriott International

Technology will also aid to create a safer hospitality experience. Delgado foresees a rise in mobile check-ins, virtual room keys and concierge apps that allow guests to reduce the need for physical contact.

“Travel in this new world will look different and our approach towards tourism is evolving in congruence with it. People will want options that are closer to home, safer, and more affordable, ” Delgado explains.

ALSO READ: Why is it so important for Malaysians to travel local post Covid-19?

Can 'sanitised travel' boost confidence?

People still want to pursue wanderlust and it is up to the relevant stakeholders to help them do so safely, says Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents (Matta) president Datuk Tan Kok Liang.

“At this moment in time, protection of the public health, including tourism workers and tourists, remains the key priority. Everyone would want to remain in a place where their wellbeing is guaranteed with no risk of being jeopardised.

“This is why sanitised travel must be highlighted to ensure that the tourism industry will be able to progress, ” he says.

   Contactless check-in kiosks is a way to minimise the time spent at airports. — AirAsiaContactless check-in kiosks is a way to minimise the time spent at airports. — AirAsia

For sanitised travel to be successful, however, there has to be coordination between all relevant stakeholders.

“It is crucial to ensure coordination between transport service providers, places of interest, hotels and restaurants based on health safety standards by the Health Ministry, ” Tan shares.

Tourism businesses, according to Tan, have guidelines in place to minimise the risk of being exposed to Covid-19.

Some of these measures include disinfection of tour vehicles, strict personal hygiene among tour guides, sanitisation of luggage and reducing full capacity in tour buses by 50% to maintain social distancing SOPs.

Tan says travellers must do their part to ensure their own health and safety too.

Social distancing being put in place with the seats at KLIA. Social distancing being put in place with the seats at KLIA.

“Travellers who are travelling during this period should always self-monitor their health status and ensure strict personal hygiene.

“Call the local health authority in advance as they will have the latest information on the situation in the area and can quickly direct you to the best health facility, ” he says.

Above all, Tan believes that the idea of sanitised travel can help to bolster confidence in travelling again.

“Sanitised travel must be highlighted to ensure that the tourism industry will be able to progress, ” he says.

While avid traveller Aeria will continue to travel, the only thing that would give her complete peace of mind is when a vaccine is found.

“I think it’s only safe if there’s a vaccine and if the curve is flattened. Otherwise, how will we know if we’re really going to be safe?” she concludes.

Tips for travellers

While travel operators are doing their part to ensure a safer journey during the Covid-19 crisis, travellers need to continue to stay vigilant too.

Here are some measures that you can personally take to stay safe while travelling under new normal circumstances.

“Travellers should always keep in mind that the best defence against Covid-19 is good hygiene. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends washing hands frequently with soap and water or using sanitisers. Preventive measures to consider before travelling includes bringing face masks and personal hand sanitisers before starting a trip.” – Datuk Tan Kok Liang, Matta

“It is advisable to obtain information from your embassies and airlines for the latest travel advice as well as check with the Health Ministry’s new regulations and recommendations for the travellers in the country that you will be visiting.” – Rivero Delgado, Marriott International

“For passengers’ own comfort and hygiene especially on long haul flights, passengers are encouraged to bring additional masks and hand sanitisers (subject to 100ml or Liquid Alcohol Gel/LAG regulations) for your own use.” – Malaysia Airlines

“It is your responsibility to ensure that you are eligible to travel, be it international or domestic before booking a flight. Please arrive early at the airport – preferably three hours before departure – to allow for enough time for all the necessary processes to take place.” – Riad Asmat, AirAsia

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