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Fionola Meredith

Why Aer Lingus cabin photo has us wondering if it will ever be completely safe to fly again

Fionola Meredith

Life's all about balancing risk and freedom, says Fionola Meredith, that is why she cannot wait to get back on a plane


The packed Aer Lingus flight from Belfast to Heathrow didn’t allow for social distancing

The packed Aer Lingus flight from Belfast to Heathrow didn’t allow for social distancing

The packed Aer Lingus flight from Belfast to Heathrow didn’t allow for social distancing

Sometimes I wonder what the coronavirus pandemic, together with the global lockdown, is doing to our brains.

What happens to the human mind when it's swimming in a soup of fear for weeks or months on end?

Maybe it's just me but when I watch films or TV from pre-pandemic days it seems strange to see people greeting each other with handshakes and hugs. Normal human behaviour, in other words. Now we have been weaned of our natural instincts.

We must keep two metres away from everyone else so we don't catch or spread the bug. The vast majority of people continue to do this with extraordinary diligence and responsibility, whatever our preaching, patronising politicians think.

We know we must maintain social distancing and regular hand-washing, both during and after lockdown, until credible evidence shows that the threat has passed. We get it.

And that's precisely why the picture of the jam-packed Aer Lingus flight from Belfast to Heathrow gave us all such a jolt.

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No distancing, no masks, no hand sanitiser. It looked like a scene from another world, the pre-Covid world, where we all jostled on to flights together and never thought a thing of it.

Now Aer Lingus has added an extra daily flight to London in order to reduce passenger numbers on each aircraft.

But the larger question remains in many people's minds: will it be safe to fly again even when the lockdown eases?

EasyJet has indicated that it will leave the middle seat unoccupied when travel restrictions are lifted, although Ryanair says there's no point getting back into the skies if it can't sell tickets for the middle seat.

When Hungarian airline Wizz Air flew from Bulgaria to Luton last week cabin crew wore masks and gloves and distributed sanitising wipes to passengers, who were also required to wear masks.

How much difference any of this will make if you're sitting (almost) cheek by jowl with others, breathing the same recycled air, is anyone's guess.

And as Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary asked, what if you're sitting in the window seat and you need out to go to the loo? Whatever way you slice and dice it, being airborne means being close to other people.

Yet planes cannot stay grounded forever. They are an essential part of the way we live and work and play. Aviation is the lifeblood of global business and leisure, on which millions upon millions rely for their livelihoods.

Only the most misanthropic environmentalists, who consider humanity a cancer on the planet, would want to see the industry collapse.

So once we're cleared for take-off again the question then becomes: how much risk am I as an individual prepared to tolerate?

Personally, I would be happy to fly at the earliest opportunity. I enjoy travelling and I miss being able to go to the places that I love.

The latest figures from respected medical journal The Lancet show that - for my age bracket - the current likelihood of dying from Covid-19 is 0.161%.

If I was elderly, suffered from underlying health conditions, or was morbidly obese, then I might well think differently.

Then again I might not. There are plenty of healthy older people who resent being kept locked up by the government for their own good and, in the post-lockdown future, may well decide to jet off for a fortnight in the sunshine.

Would I wear a mask on the plane? Yes, but mainly out of respect and reassurance for others around me. While masks will no doubt play a large part in our own exit plans, as they already do in other countries who are gradually lifting their lockdowns, there is no scientific consensus that they work.

I believe that our perceptions of risk are in danger of being skewed by pandemic-induced fear. Life itself is an inherently chancy business. As Dr Phil Hammond, who writes the long-running M.D. column in the satirical magazine Private Eye points out: "We live with complex and dangerous global risks every day … Covid-19 is just another in a long line of life-threatening risks humans have made, and humans are having to manage."

Without a vaccine it's something we may have to live with for many years to come

Whether we realise it or not, we constantly perform a balancing act between risk and freedom. Many thousands of people are killed or seriously injured on the roads every year, but we still get into our cars. When the ban on non-essential travel is lifted I'll definitely be getting on a plane.

The challenge is not only to defeat coronavirus, but to defeat our own life-limiting fear.

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