Pontifications: Airlines, OEMs step up in virus crisis

By Scott Hamilton

April 13, 2020, © Leeham News: There are plenty of stories and photos floating around the Internet about airlines flying empty or nearly so.

Schedules have been pared back up to 95% across the globe.

Spot-check Flightradar24 at any given moment and there are a lot air freighters flying.

But the passenger airlines are also flying some airliners dedicated to cargo. Some are flying cargo in the below-deck holds only. Others installed plastic protection over the passenger seats and loaded box after box after box of protective masks for shipment. Still others removed the passenger seats entirely and loaded the main deck with lighter-weight cargo.

This article summarizes many airlines that stepped up to fly supplies throughout the world.

Other examples

There are other examples of passenger carriers chipping in.

Alaska Airlines is flying masks on its Boeing 737 converted freighters and passenger aircraft to cities across its US network. The masks go to Providence Hospital’s 51 facilities in the US. Providence, like the company making the masks, is headquartered in the Seattle area.

Delta Air Lines was a leader in adapting to the crisis. It’s flown health workers free. Like American and other airlines, it’s flown dedicated cargo flights to/from international destinations. It’s donating 200,000 lbs of food that were ordered for its now-closed SkyClub to needy places.

American Airlines was one of the first carriers to begin dedicating passenger aircraft to freight operations. It’s since upped its game, now operating all-cargo flights between Dallas and Hong Kong, Dublin and Frankfort; between Miami and Buenos Aires; and New York and London. Flights to Seoul and Shanghai also were added. American, following Delta’s lead, donated 81,000 lbs of food to food banks.

OEMs step up, too

Airbus stepped up early to dispatch an A330-800 to China to bring back 2m masks for distribution to its workers and to health care facilities in Europe. An A400M took masks from Toulouse to Spain. More masks were sent to Mobile (AL), where Airbus has A320 and A220 final assembly lines. And it’s done this more than once.

Boeing began manufacturing reusable 3D-printed face shields. It said the first batch of 2,300 were delivered to federal authorities Friday. This initial batch was delivered to Dallas. Boeing is manufacturing thousands of these shields per week. Manufacturing is now underway at 11 cities and regions across the US.

Boeing previously donated tens of thousands of units of personal protective equipment, including face masks, goggles, gloves, safety glasses and protective bodysuits.

Boeing subsidiaries Argon ST and Aurora Flight Sciences also are participating.

The company offered the federal government use of three 747 Dreamlifters to transport goods, but apparently this hasn’t yet been tapped.

Embraer engaged with its supply chain to increase production of equipment and “solutions” to combat the virus in Brazil.

Parts manufacturing for ventilators and respirators, development of filtration systems and other actions are part of EMB’s efforts.

Bringing citizens home

Many airlines across the globe dispatched airplanes to bring citizens, who were caught in other countries when borders were closed, home.

These are just some of the things the commercial aviation industry is doing in this global crisis. It’s going to be a long time before the crisis is over.




39 Comments on “Pontifications: Airlines, OEMs step up in virus crisis

  1. Scott, you should bend the metal strip in your mask down around your nose to make sure the mask fits closely to the skin.

    • Looks like one without the fit adjustment?
      Which way round do you use the valve on the professional masks?

      Will be interesting to see the actual impact of these “swords to masks” retooling efforts. They get lots of (good) press, but do they have a significant impact on supply?

      • The impression I get is that they do have a significant impact. On a side topic, I haven’t seen any comment about raw material supply (eg could the raw material supply be used up only for authorities to discover something else in short supply that they need printing) or whether all of this printing is coordinated to avoid any oversupply within the geographies the new manufacturers are able to ship to.

  2. Judging by the perishable groceries that one can easily buy in shops here in the UK, a lot of the airfreight system is working pretty well. That can only be the result of a determined team effort across several industries, choosing to keep going rather than fold up for the duration. Grateful thanks to all concerned, not really for the groceries (nice though they are), but for all the more important stuff that’s being moved too.

    Regarding companies in the aviation industry getting involved in making things like PPE, it’s certainly good to see. However, I fear that a lot of what is being made is (not through any fault of the people involved) the wrong stuff. There is a global shortage of PPE like face masks, gowns, etc, because an awful lot of it is being used. However, the science results coming in now suggest that this particular virus lasts for quite a long time (hours) in aerosol form, will easily travel 4 meters through the air, remains active for a whole day on cardboard surfaces (something to think about with one’s Amazon deliveries…), and several days on plastic and stainless steel.

    What that means (if all this preliminary research is right) is that there’s not really any sort of ordinary PPE that will actually prevent one getting it, if one is near someone coughing it all over the place. What Japan has realised is that, in a hospital environment at least, the only way of truly containing it is negative air pressure rooms, and fully enclosed positive air pressure hazmat suits with all the scrubbing down involved in between. Not really practicable on a mass scale. They found this out due to a serious screw up; a hospital in Kobe misconfigured its air system and it’s isolation rooms were positive pressure, not negative. CVD19 spread everywhere before they realised…

    In short, extra manufacturing of PPE is, whilst being very well intentioned indeed, is possibly, tragically, in the final analysis going to be found to have been futile (other than providing a comforting effect, which is important in its own way). If so, that will inevitably raise questions as to what could have been done better; instead of moving raw PET plastic around to everyone who is suddenly wanting to make face screens, would it have been better to have shipped something else instead?

    We may never know. I strongly feel that at the end of all this there will be a lot of covering up going on, and no one in positions of power will have any interest in truly finding out what went wrong, what could have been done better, whether what we actually did do was of any help at all. Politicians won’t – it’s largely down to their lack of interest that governments have been caught napping. Senior scientific advisers won’t – they’re dishing out advice based on their worst case assumptions, and no one likes their own assumptions (leading to $/£/€trillions being spent) being assessed. [Here in the UK there’s been a spat between Imperial College London – which has the ear of the government – and Oxford University – which doesn’t. Oxford reckons that cvd19 has already spread far and wide, and that the lockdown is therefore pretty pointless. Imperial College thinks it hasn’t. The economic consequence of the lockdown rests on how sound Imperial’s (and ultimately just one researcher’s) assumtpions have been… Guess how keen Imperial are going to be to have their assumption tested!]

    What is true though is that there’s clearly a need for better global coordination of the response to things like this. That means countries truly not perverting their own statistics for their own political reasons, sharing information early, coming to each other’s aid, etc. Perhaps the one thing that the aviation industry can do that will make a difference in future is to join in lobbying for these things to be done better.

    Afterall, better global management of pandemics makes a real difference to the fortunes of the aviation industry, and ultimately it’s not helpful to companies if their governments withdraw from active participation in managing things like ebola, now covid-19, provision of health care, etc. If you’ve got companies like Boeing, Airbus and the airlines all pressurising their governments to play a more active role in global health, then perhaps those governments will.

    • What that means (if all this preliminary research is right) …

      That’s the key right there. Every day there are news of new studies rushed out, without validation or peer review. They will not all be right. Which ones will be remains to be seen.

      • Who was the entrepreneur and industrialist who said you are going well to be right 50% of the time. Henry Ford.

        Im not surprised to see the hindsight perfectionists already lining up their monocles here to sit in judgement.

        • Trying things and failing at some of them is all well and good if you’re Henry Ford or Bill Gates.

          But making decisions for the health of a nation based on preliminary studies and reports that have not been validated could be fatal. For a lot of people.

          • Wasnt there a ‘study’ done in 1919 and it predicted 500-650K deaths?
            Oh thats right it wasnt a study, it was the real thing. Maybe the US will ‘get lucky’ and only have 100K deaths

            Even worse the first wave was quite mild and it was the second that was the major killer.
            Black Swan events do happen and by definition they ‘cant be validated’.

    • The Imperial/Oxford ‘spat’ was, I think, largely in the non-specialist press. Within the communities that are actually knowledgeable the Oxford paper was considered questionable due to not being peer-reviewed but the non-specialist press simply jumped on the paper, like everything else potentially alarmist, to try and criticise. Plus, there was a widespread failure to properly read the paper, another failing of the non-specialist press (frankly I find a lot of ‘news’ of embarrassingly poor quality at the moment). For a more rigorous reading of the Oxford paper have a look at https://www.linkedin.com/posts/covid-19-actuaries-response-group_has-over-half-of-the-uk-been-exposed-to-covid-activity-6648877124587520000-6nMO.

      • Yes, it’s all “of the moment” and the peer review process doesn’t, indeed can’t, work that quickly. The trouble is that the advice being given to governments at the moment is also not peer reviewed either. It is based solely on the assumptions for infection and fatality rates made by only a very few people who haven’t really got any data to justify them.

        There are people pointing out that the track record of this group has been poor in “epidemics”. Remember the scare about Creutzfeldt–Jakob following mad-cow disease? That turned out to be massively overblown. Not a great track record, then.

        Rather than just copying everyone else with lockdowns, Sweden is taking a very different approach to the rest of Europe, based on their own views of infection rates and fatality rates. What I think is quite intersting is that it seems that, rather than rates being guessed at by some academics in a university, the Swedes have left it to their government health care sector to judge. A notable difference is that academics don’t have to deliver anything, and won’t guarantee what they’re saying is correct either, whereas the governmental health system has to be right “in the round”.

        If the Swedes end up getting this right, there’s going to be a whole load of countries looking very stupid after this is over. I can’t bear to think about the consequences of that.

        • There is peer review and there is peer review. The standard formal process through publishing in specific journals would be much too slow and unwieldy to be helpful in making certain decisions right now. In contrast an informal (eg including the likes of Twitter), but still qualified, process may lack oversight but hopefully a debate among genuine experts gets us to a genuine understanding and actionable points in a timely manner

          Unfortunately the Oxford paper (researched and written very quickly) appears to have gone past no peers at all, simply straight to the media, where its most extreme forecasts were sensationalised, quite likely in most (possibly all) cases by journalists lacking the ability to actually understand the material. The same journalists did the same with the IHME forecasts.

          The Imperial model on the other hand presumably saw at least some informal review by 1 or more professionally trained people in the bureaucracy of the UK Civil Service and/or colleagues of Ferguson in the 13 years since he wrote the original model.

          Ferguson’s track record on accuracy is troubling, his openness on the model is troubling, his having had a prior relationship with the now Chief Scientific Advisor given theese points is (to me) troubling, his elevation to a sort of guru status is troubling. But the results must have had more qualified assessment by peers before the results were publicised than those of the Oxford paper.

          As an aside, the formal peer review process itself is currently subject to significant ongoing concerns about widespread faked results, poor quality reviews, conflicts of interest and so on.

          I’m not clear what point you seek to make regarding Sweden vs the UK. Academics (at least any who aren’t unscrupulous) won’t have “guessed at” rates. They’ll have forecast them based on their models. The models may be anywhere from good to rubbish and there will be variability on input data (within a range provided by evidence to date) and therefore in outputs, but “guessed at”? No. Also, maybe Sweden does indeed completely internalise expertise within government bureaucracy (I’ve no idea if you are correct or not) but I don’t see how ignoring relevant expert input because they aren’t in ‘your silo’ would be anything but stupid.

        • There are quite a few media reports comparing the UK to Ireland, rest of EU to Sweden etc.

          The problem is that the situation in each country is quite different, you can’t compare the UK with Ireland. Ireland has approx 181 people per square mile, the UK has 710, Sweden has 60, Denmark has 350.

          Even that is far too blunt to use as a comparison, London boroughs are more densely populated than Dublin, Copenhagen, Stockholm.

          Copenhagen: 17393 /sqm
          Stockholm: 12909
          Dublin: 12460

          Southwark borough London: 28469 / sqm
          Islington borough London: 41691
          Tower Hamlets borough London: 41587

          Even this is far too blunt, you also have to consider the demographic of each location, and their cultures.

          Data is starting to suggest that in the UK the Black, Asian, and minority ethnic population is being hardest hit by COVID-19 proportionally. There are many potential reasons for this: larger family units in close proximity, more likely to be in jobs that are customer facing, unable to isolate due to financial constraints, possible role of Sickle cell disease… there are just a ton of possible reasons that the UK is different to Ireland, Sweden etc.

          Sweden also has high levels of single occupant housing, quite different to some of the areas in the UK where extended family sharing the same dwelling is very common. 1 infected staying alone versus 1 infected with 10 to 20 in the same home, you do the math as they say in the USA.

          But if we just look at the information that we do have, i.e. number of people tested with COVID-19, and the amount of deaths attributed to COVID-19, if the UK had adopted a more Swedish approach to lockdown, there would have been a great many more deaths.

          The whole strategy has been to keep the amount of people needing ICU beds to a level that the National Health Service can manage. This is why the Nightingale hospitals were built (potential 11,000 beds), if you don’t contain the infection rate, you could potentially need a multiple of that number.

          This is not a 3 month game, and then we go back to business as usual. As infections are brought under control, restrictions will be eased, possibly by geographic location, infection rates will increase again, and restrictions will be back for a time. This will go on for a while, trying to keep the economy going, but at all times with an eye on making sure that the NHS has an ICU bed for anyone that needs it.
          Look at the graphs here

          The science on this is evolving, the wise man follows the science, and adapts even if they look foolish politically. Stick with the science !!

          More graphs to evaluate here:

          @FryRsquared presented a very interesting programme last year Contagion: The BBC Four Pandemic, this link shows the potential effect of washing your hands

          • Uwe

            I agree the UK can definitely learn from Germany, we didn’t have enough testing facilities, or reagent stocks. From some of the other countries that have fared relatively well, contact tracing is very important !

            Something that also could help is once you’ve identified someone with the virus, don’t have them self isolate at home with other occupants, remove them to a facility where they can self isolate, and where they can be monitored more efficiently, and provided with earlier intervention than if they’re just trying to tough it out at home (and infecting the family that is trying to care for them).

            You need to prevent a patient becoming more seriously ill. Monitoring temperature, and sats every hour, and ensuring that the patient is hydrated (Drip if necessary), getting them on oxygen earlier etc. If they are at home, they may well deteriorate to the point they need ICU care which could have been prevented.

            Obesity may well be a factor, Diabetes may also be a risk factor.

            There is a lot to be learnt from this outbreak. Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic cases seem to make up 30% of the UK virus patients where they only make up around 14% of the population.

            I would hope that DNA, and blood samples are being taken from all cases to be studied for patterns. It can be anonymised, just month, and year of birth, sex, survived or died, scale of disease severity if survived. You look for patterns, and if you can find risk factors, you can better protect the vulnerable.

          • @JakDak,

            I agree that UK and Sweden are not comparable in many ways. But Sweden and Finland are quite close — except that Finland enforced a COVID-19 lockdown. Per capita, Sweden has double the cases and 10x the deaths. Sweden had 170 deaths just today — Finnish total is at 72 to date.

            The “Swedish experiment” is not looking good to me at the moment.

  3. A good example of facial protection for the foresseable future, Scott!
    Greetings from Home Office – also today… Guess why!

    • What Scott is wearing is just a protection for others. These type of masks won’t save you from infection but prevent others from getting it.

      That’s why they are used in medical circumstances: to protect the patients.

      • I am not a mask expert, but a mask is really part of a protective system.

        Isolation gowns, gloves, face shield.

        • I did hear of someone going to the supermarket in a full NBC outfit. I do wonder how they are going to doff their outfit when they get home. Presumably they have a full decontamination suite there, with an individual to help them properly get out of their kit.

          People need to understand the limits of masks, and at least change them often, and not infect themselves taking them off.

          Oddly people seem to touch their faces more when they have a mask on as they are uncomfortable to wear. They have to be reminded to keep washing their hands after they have touched their masks.

          One of the biggest risk factors now is mobile phones, people are gloved up, but keep using their phones, then take off their gloves, wash their hands, and pick up their phone again…

          Agree TW you need eye protection as well, no good having a mask if you are close enough that the droplets get in your eyes.

  4. Yea, got Skype setup on the computer for my wife and it was awful to see my own face when testing the camera.

    • it is not about being all or nothing effective.

      The point of interest is by how much does a “thing” depress contagiousness. More than 50 shades of gray around.

  5. One wonders if the return of the Combi, even in some sort of medium term temporary form makes sense?
    I realize that airlines aren’t going to cut a side cargo door into passenger aircraft, but as demand slowly creeps back, there could be opportunities to fly aircraft with all the lower containers dedicated to heavier cargo, and a rear section creatively bulk-headed (curtained?) off for passenger luggage as well as lighter cargo such as cases of PPE or other urgent supplies needed across oceans.

    Maybe unpractical, I admit. But it seems it could help efficiency if planes are flying a modest J class cabin and s couple dozen Y/Y+ row’s worth of passengers. Seems it will be a while before transoceanic loads return, even on reduced frequencies.

    Reminds me a little of my parents steaming across the Atlantic with about a dozen other passengers on a comfortably fitted cargo vessel’s oversize deck house in the late 50s.

    • Reduced frequencies does all that, the golden age of aviation up till the 90s was built on the ‘standard 3 times a week’ long haul flight ,and you were lucky to find a route that had daily long haul.
      The Sydney Melbourne route in Australia had up to 50 return flights per day, mostly single aisle. Now its 2 per day from the main carriers

      • Passenger planes will only fly with passengers widely spaced at first.

        6 across seating may be 2 passengers only per row as a short term social distancing fix.
        No room on the main deck for cargo, as its not expected to be beyond the immediate future

        • You would also need to skip every second row to get the 2m separation. However, families (people who bought the tickets together?) would be able to sit together. Still, you would max out at maybe 1/3 of the seats occupied.

          Masks for passengers and N95 filtration for the ventilation system?

          Not sure yet how this will work. Not promising for the airlines, to be sure.

          • 2m separation is only for ‘uncontrolled places’ like shops or public transport
            Planes arent uncontrolled like that, as seating is a closely defined space and more importantly they know who each passenger is and where the others are in relation to them.
            The social distance then becomes 1m

    • Isn’t lack of fire suppression an issue with taking cargo on the assener deck(s)? With subsequent legal liabilities making it a non-starter.

      As an aside I long though (probably completely wrongly) that making the A380 a convertible combi (top deck) would have been a good idea.

  6. This whole pandemic of COVID-19 could be in it’s infancy. It might be wishful thinking that in a matter of weeks we are going to return to some semblance of normalcy. I’d like to think industry, manufacturing and society could resume their daily routines, but the pathology of the virus is not fully understood. Only time will tell. I’ll be ordering up and looking to get another mask or two in the near term.

    • Its the financial crash 10 years into the future thats a worry.
      After all doesnt history repeat ?
      Pandemic 1919 …pandemic 2020
      Financial Crash 1929 ….. 2030 ??

        • Its a well known saying that history repeats …for good reason.

          Once we are out of the pandemic a new financial collapse is fairly certain some way down the road . The last one was only 12 yrs ago. Just as China is a common source of most viral outbreaks , usually flu which can be quite deadly on its own, the US is the source of financial collapses. In each case its inherent in their culture and the way their society works.

          • I have always thought that the economy and the stock market are quite fragile. It has always seemed that it does not take a whole lot of information or news to effect and up or down trajectory. There have been some real flaws in our economic practices for many years now. Could a pandemic be the straw that broke the camel’s back down the road? Absolutely.

    • They are only doing repatriation flights from Dubai to various other countries for their large immigrant population
      Its not a practical method can use to every day travel

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