Last year, supermodel Naomi Campbell made headlines when she shared a video of herself very thoroughly sanitizing her Qatar Airlines seat. There were disinfecting wipes involved, plastic gloves and a face mask.
And that was before the coronavirus pandemic. With the world battling a highly contagious global health threat, Campbell has taken her in-flight hygiene habits a step further by wearing a hazmat suit on board.
Campbell is not alone in wearing hazmat suits on planes. The behavior is becoming more common for regular air travelers, as well as airline staff. Disposable personal protective equipment suits can cost less than $20 online, but health experts aren’t advocating wearing them on planes during the pandemic.
“Wearing a hazmat suit on an airplane is unnecessary and could cause undue concern for other travelers,” Scott Pauley, a press officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Washington Post by email. “CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”
Nonetheless, multiple carriers are requiring flight attendants to wear hazmat suits on planes, including Philippine Airlines, AirAsia and, most recently, Qatar Airways, CNN reported.
On May 18, Qatar Airways announced it would require members of its cabin crew to wear disposable PPE suits over their uniforms in addition to other gear including safety goggles, gloves and a mask.
“At Qatar Airways, we have introduced these additional safety measures onboard our flights to ensure the continued health and well-being of our passengers and cabin crew and to limit the spread of coronavirus,” Qatar Airways Group chief executive Akbar Al Baker said in a statement. “As an airline, we maintain the highest possible hygiene standards to ensure that we can fly people home safely during this time.”
According to Adrian Hyzler, chief medical officer for Healix International, a company specializing in security and international medical and travel-assistance services, neither the European Union Airline Safety Association nor the International Air Transport Association recommends hazmat suits for airline crews unless they’re dealing with sick passengers.
Hyzler said one concern with wearing hazmat suits is improperly getting out of them. If there’s any trace of the coronavirus on the suit, wearers might come into contact with it as they take off their PPE. The CDC did say recently, “Coronavirus primarily spreads from person to person and not easily from a contaminated surface,” the Washington Post reported.
Another issue is they can give the wearer a false sense of security. “This is something with all PPE that makes the wearer think that they are somehow better protected,” Hyzler said.
Hyzler warned there are downsides to wearing hazmat suits beyond being ineffective for protecting wearers from coronavirus.
“There are hundreds of different kinds of hazmat suits, and unless they’re sophisticated ones, they may be very hot, as well,” Hyzler said. “You’re kind of touching your face quite a lot with your gloves, and it’s just uncomfortable.”
Wearing a hazmat suit at the airport won’t necessarily get you stopped at security. “Travelers are screened at checkpoints regardless of what they are wearing. If they trigger an alarm, it could likely result in a patdown,” TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said in an email.
According to Farbstein, whether you have to take the suit off at airport security depends on “what type of hazmat suit in terms of whether a pat-down would resolve the alarm.”
Hyzler, and the CDC, discourage wearing hazmat suits on planes but still recommend face masks. “If everyone’s wearing a mask, there’s reduced risk of (coronavirus) transmission,” Hyzler said.
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