Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Fear of Flying Can Be Contagious

Ryanair announces pay toilets in the sky

Ryanair has found a novel way to put the squeeze on airline passengers. The British discount airline has decided to make its patrons pay to use the potty.

The airline is planning to charge £1 (approx. US$1.53) for each lavatory use – but only on flights lasting less than one hour. Management hopes that the charge will deter passengers from using the facilities while airborne. Ryanair also plans to reduce the number of lavatories on each airplane from three to one, allowing it to add six more seats on each flight.

Airline spokesperson Stephen McNamara explained to USA Today the underlying logic to the Company's decision, saying, "By charging for the toilets we are hoping to change passenger behavior so that they use the bathroom before or after the flight."

Oh well, so much for that pre-flight 'cuppa' tea at Heathrow!

Imagine the chaos on a flight that is delayed due to weather or mechanical difficulty for a couple of hours. Even worse, picture the following incident, reported in the latest issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases:

In October 2008, 35 members of a "leaf peeper" bus tour boarded a flight in Boston to return home to Los Angeles after completing a fall foliage tour. Unbeknownst to the group or the flight crew, nearly half of the group were incubating a Norovirus infection, acquired somewhere along the way.

Six members of the group became ill once the flight was airborne. Five reported episodes of vomiting; one passenger experienced multiple episodes of diarrhea, including at least one episode that took place in the aisle of the first class cabin. Ill passengers were force to tote their own motion sickness bags to the lavatories multiple times, because flight attendants refused to handle nasty things. One of the lavatories became so badly soiled that it was taken out of service.

The flight was diverted to Chicago, where four of the ill passengers were taken to an emergency room; two of them were hospitalized.

At least seven other passengers on the ill-fated flight – not members of the foliage tour group – later also experienced symptoms typical of Norovirus gastroenteritis. These unlucky souls, who were seated on the aisle or near to one of the ill passengers, were undoubtedly infected as a result of their close contact with the afflicted tour group members.

Reading the outbreak report – and waking up this morning to the Ryanair announcement – started me thinking about the problem of sanitizing airplane lavatories in-flight. One hands-off approach might be to install ultraviolet (UV) sanitizing lighting in each lavatory. The lights would turn on automatically whenever the lavatory was empty, and would turn off as soon as someone opened the door to enter the lavatory.

While not a perfect solution, bathing all exposed surfaces (sink, counter, faucet handles, toilet seat, floor, et cetera) in UV light whenever a lavatory is not in use would greatly reduce the chance of passenger-to-passenger spread of infectious bacteria and viruses.

Something to think about, the next time I board a Ryanair flight.

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