Neither Qantas nor V Australia are carrying swine ‘flu information for travellers on the primary or booking pages of their web sites.

This contrasts with the detailed advice given on the first page of the web sites of such major competitors as Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines.

Memo Qantas: Even Crikey put Swine flu on page one
Memo Qantas: Even Crikey put Swine flu on page one

A Qantas spokesperson said “We did not to set ourselves up as having some authoritative knowledge of the medical situation in favour of encouraging passengers to use the Australian advisories through Smarttraveller.gov.au as the source of information and guidance.”

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However for a case study in spinning useless information into something vaguely reassuring the International Air Transport Association IATA takes the uncooked pork chop, both here and here.

IATA.org quotes its director general, Giovanni Bisignani, as saying:-

People getting on planes should be reassured of two things. First, even under normal circumstances, airlines have equipment and measures in place to keep the cabin environment safe. For example, modern aircraft have air filtration systems similar to those in hospitals, aircraft are regularly disinfected as part of normal cleaning routines and crew are trained in handling procedures for passengers who might become ill onboard aircraft. Secondly, the years of planning for the possibility of avian influenza have prepared the industry to deal efficiently with the unfolding situation by following the recommendations of WHO.”

Sounds good. Means nothing. Keeping the ‘cabin environment safe’ is uselessly vague in terms of swine ‘flu, about which too little is known by health authorities at this stage of this particular outbreak.

And while modern aircraft do usually have HEPA air filtration systems they certainly don’t have any that reproduce the elevated sterility of isolation wards or special treatment chambers for those suffering from a wide range of respiratory or bacterial diseases.

Even if through some good fortune the HEPA filtration proved capable of stopping SARS (which it didn’t) or virulently dangerous strains of influenza, that is irrelevant if you are in the same cabin as someone who is infected and sneezes. Or for that matter breathes.

What that person breathes in and out gets to other parts of the cabin, especially within three rows of economy seating, a lot sooner than it gets into the filtration system.

The second claim that airlines are after years of practice prepared to follow the recommendations of the World Health Organisation is ridiculous. What practice is needed? A recommendation is made. The airlines implement it as soon as they finish reading the last word. If they don’t their legal liability insurance is toast.

The sordid reality of flight in the confines of aluminium tubes with slowly circulated and replenished air is that what you breathe is exhaled, often, by as many as three or four hundred people sharing the same space.

And that includes whatever colds, coughs and other respiratory infections everyone else has brought to your microbial collective in the sky.

Short of making intercontinental hops wearing a space suit with an individual air supply, this is how it will be for many decades to come.

Gesundheit!

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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