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From Antibody Testing to Deep Cleaning: How Private Aviation Is Confronting Covid-19

Some providers have gone all out with new sanitation procedures and technology, while others are using the resources they have available.

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Since the Covid-19 crisis started, business aviation has generally been proactive in confronting the virus. Fractional provider NetJets partnered with a company called Cellex to make antibody testing available to its employees, while also offering Covid-19 testing free to its employees. It also disinfects each aircraft following each flight.

Its competitor, Flexjet, follows a similar protocol, instituting a deep-cleaning process after every flight. Early on, it also applied an antimicrobial coating called Microshield 360 that kills 99.99 percent of pathogens for up to a year.

Beyond cleaning its aircraft, Flexjet also launched Project Lift, which is not only unique to the industry but also highly expensive for the company. “It’s essentially an internal airline for our crews,” CEO Michael Silvestro told Robb Report. “We have 160 planes and more than 700 pilots and flight crew who end up living in 40 cities around the country,” he said. “Instead of having them fly commercially to meet their plane, we fly them on our own fleet. They are much less at risk of being exposed to the virus. It’s more challenging, but the effort has been well received.”

Flexjet

Leading private aviation firms like Flexjet and NetJets have been spraying cabins with long-lasting, anti-microbial compounds to kill any potential coronavirus.  Flexjet

Other providers like VistaJet have installed telemedicine devices called the Tempus IC2 that allows flight crews to measure and relay clinical data and images to MedAire, which has a 24/7 center staffed with medical personnel. MedAire’s global medical director, Dr. Paulo Alves, said the equipment provides “the same type of parameters” available in many emergency rooms.

Arizona-based Set Jet instituted a Covid-19 fingerprint antibody test for crew and its members. “We partnered with Core Institute locally to do the testing and with that partnership, we’re able to offer the test to our members and crew before the flight,” CEO Tom Smith told Fox Business.

Other charter providers have launched safety programs. Silver Air developed its “Covid-19 Cleared” program with medical professionals, while Clay Lacy Aviation introduced a “CleanCheck” standard protocol after consulting with US agencies like the FAA, Centers for Disease Control and its aircraft manufacturer partners.

Flexjet

Flexjet had one of the earliest and most aggressive responses to Covid-19, including ferrying pilots and air staff on its own fleet to minimize exposure. 

The efforts seem to be working. “Our team has seen an increase in disinfection services along with questions surrounding Covid-19 and what precautions to take with their aircraft,” Tyler Harper of AEM Logistics told Robb Report. “This shows us that our customers are taking the proper precautionary actions to ensure we come out of this more informed and better prepared.”

That’s the good news. The bad, or currently unclear, news is that it’s difficult for travelers to gauge just how much their providers—especially the smaller charter firms with fewer financial resources—are doing to protect them during these uncertain times.

“The foundation of this business has always been about safety,” Silvestro says. “Before, clients and potential clients would always look at the age of aircraft and its mechanical history when they discussed safety. This pandemic has expanded what safety means. Now the dialogue focuses as much on the wellbeing of the client rather than just the aircraft.”

Last year’s good old days of exposed faces and handshakes are gone, as all private air firms have instituted stricter protocols. Many firms have even done away with niceties like fresh flowers.  Adobe

Covid-19 has also thrown a bit of a curve ball at private aviation because no industrywide protocols exist. Larger firms like NetJets and Flexjet can afford the latest best practices, or even create their own, but many smaller firms are struggling.

A recent panel discussion on Covid-19 safety protocols, hosted by the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), found some confusion among members about best practices. “There are no zero-risk situations, so you are looking for the best compromise,” said MedAire’s Alves, a member of the panel, said during the online discussion. “This is also an ever-changing situation, where we are learning every single day. It’s all about risk management.”

Greg Hamelink, senior manager of flight operations and maintenance for Stryker Corp., said there is confusion about which cleaning products to use. “What we used two months ago, we may not be able to use today,” he said, calling it the situation a “changing dance.”

Flexjet

Cleaning aircraft between flights is now common, though the types of cleaning materials and sanitation procedures differ from provider to provider. 

“The challenge for us is that it’s uncharted territory,” said Hamelink. “We are looking at what the manufacturers are telling us, and whether a product can damage an aircraft, so really is a little bit of a dance. Operators have to do their due diligence, staying on top of the medical side of things as well as the aircraft side.”

Aircraft manufacturers have provided guidance as to what products should safely be used inside their aircraft, especially in cockpits with delicate avionics and other electronics.

For private air travelers, the Covid-19 protection language could be confusing. “There are scientific differences between cleaning, sanitizing, disinfecting and sterilizing,” Frances Grinstead, CEO of Curis, a national provider of sanitation technologies, told Robb Report. “All those words come from the EPA, and they matter. They have certain milestones that you need to achieve.”

Private aviation firms report a gain in first-time fliers that most analysts attribute to an exit from commercial airlines. 

Grinstead added that some of the cleaning methods are not necessarily approved by the EPA, and some of the products could be hazardous. Other products might allow buildups of residues that could “create a breeding ground for pathogens in the future,” she said.

Despite the possible shortcomings, private aviation is regarded as being a much safer option than commercial flight, and it has seen growth over the last two months as passengers exit first class for business jets. Grinstead says private fliers should learn about the most effective cleaning protocols and products, and ask for third-party reports from business air providers about their sanitation methods.

“I would want to see disinfection reports if I were flying privately,” Grinstead says. ” I think anyone concerned about germs would want to see these reports and make sure the aircraft is so clean that they’re the first ones on the plane to spread the germs. I’ve known billionaires who are that concerned about cleanliness on their aircraft.”

Flyers should exercise their own due diligence when it comes to understanding specific sanitization protocols. “I would want to see disinfection reports if I were flying privately,” says one expert. 

Despite challenges, providers continue to adopt and create new measures as business picks up again after a lull in March and April.

Flexjet’s app, “Fit for Duty,” is in the final stages of development. “It will measure the temperatures and oxygenation levels of our employees to determine overall health,” says Silvestro.

Silvestro says that while the Covid-19 period has not been easy for small firms, it has also been a challenger for larger providers like Flexjet. “We’ve had to balance creativity and nimbleness with rolling out new measures across our infrastructure,” he says. “But I think we’re answering the question every flyer should have: ‘What are you doing to keep me safe?’ We’re doing that with both technology and new safety protocols.”

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