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Saturday,  May 18, 2024 7:35 PM 

Air Canada's VP of Safety on CleanCare+ and the future of air travel

Air Canada's VP of Safety on CleanCare+ and the future of air travel
Sam Elfassy, VP of Safety, Air Canada. Photo: Air Canada
Christine Hogg

Christine Hogg is the Associate Digital Editor at PAX Global Media. Prior to joining PAX, she obtained her Honours BA in Journalism from the University of Toronto. Upon graduating, she went on to write for several travel publications while travelling the world. Her longest trip was a three-week stint in Europe, and the shortest was a 16-hour adventure in Iceland. Get in touch:

On May 4th, Air Canada announced its intent to launch Air Canada CleanCare+, a comprehensive program for personal safety and enhanced aircraft grooming to provide customers greater peace of mind during all stages of travel. 

The new program is designed to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 through such measures as mandatory pre-flight customer temperature checks in addition to required health questionnaires, seat assignment policies to allow for more personal space in Economy Class on all flights until June 30th, 2020, and by providing all customers with care kits for hand cleaning and hygiene.

PAX caught up with Sam Elfassy, Air Canada's vice-president of safety, to learn more about the program, which officially starts on May 15th.

PAX: Not everybody feels comfortable with the idea of having a mandatory temperature check. Some consider it an invasion of privacy. What's your response to this?

Sam Elfassy (SF): First and foremost, these devices do not record anything, or collect any information. These devices are no different than what you or I would use. Their purpose is to analyze the surface temperature of someone. It’s a temperature screening device. And, more importantly, temperature alone will not be the only measure used to determine if an individual is fit to fly. Right from the check in process, we are committed to ensure safety protocols using existing procedures as well as new ones. We validate a lot of steps to make sure that throughout the travel journey, our consumers and employees are safe. It's fundamental to our moral and ethical imperative.

PAX: Air Canada has plans to resume some routes in June. What role did CleanCare+ play in this?

SF: We're facing the biggest challenge in aviation history. We’re starting by creating confidence in an environment where the industry has essentially ceased to operate across all borders. We have to figure out how to restart while making sure safety comes first, always. We have to do everything we can in the absence of a vaccine. Our ability to adapt ensures we’re able to continue, and all of these current measures are built around a non-pharmaceutical approach. 

As improved risk mitigation measures become available, those that become burdensome, or less effective will be replaced. That approach will require processes and procedures to mitigate the risk. Customers must also be in power of controlling their own journey. That gives us the ability to reset and restart passenger travel and restore confidence in air travel.

PAX: In order to promote more personal space in Economy Class, Air Canada has automatically blocked the sale of adjacent seats and has capped the total number of seats sold for each flight—yet viral images show that some flights are still taking off at maximum capacity, with all seats full. What's your take on that?

SF: There's a significant amount of understanding that there’s very low in-flight transmission levels [of COVID-19]. There is a lack of face to face contact, and the physical barriers by the seat back from the person in front of you. It's easy and provocative to sell a picture and say everyone is at risk, but everyone in that picture was wearing a mask. 

"The CleanCare+ program takes effect tomorrow," added Peter Fitzpatrick, media spokesperson at Air Canada. "There are still come people returning on repatriation flights, prior to the rules surrounding blocking the sale of those adjacent seats. Some flights are full, but wearing a mask on board has been a requirement to fly since April."

PAX: IATA recently stated that it doesn't support blocking the middle seat to encourage physical distancing, saying that this will only cause airfare prices to jump. Will Air Canada block the sale of the middle seat, too?

SF: Certain measures, like blocking the sale of the middle seat, should only be in place for as long as deemed necessary. Whatever measures we introduce should always be re-evaluated when less disruptive measures become available, and we will implement them at the nearest opportunity. With no efficient evidence, they’ll be removed. We draw on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is most commonly transmitted. There is no solid solution currently available to completely stop the spread, and so we are  taking a layered approach. This is no different from how airline security is approached, day in and day out. As more risk mitigations become available, we will re-examine our policies.

I would love for there to be one single step to minimize the risk to the general public, but all of the items we've introduced are designed for that. We recognize that some of those we can transfer and exchange for others as more abilities present themselves, but we’ll take all of the necessary steps and do everything that we can to restore that confidence within the passenger.

PAX: Air Canada is one of several airlines lifting its restrictions, but is travel really safe for everybody? Should certain "at risk" demographics stay away?

SF: Any travel or operational restrictions have been, or will be designed to protect the health of our citizens, employees, and customers. So long as individuals follow their health recommendations when travelling, then yes, of course it's safe! 

This progressive restoration by air travel will require travellers to take responsibility for their own health. Provided you know where the risks lie, and you're aware of how to keep yourself safe, anyone who is able to can travel. We’re working with airports and government authorities to create continued care plans.

Identifying traveller health risks are no different than identifying security risks after 9/11. It’s a shared responsibility between airlines, government, and passengers themselves to assess their own levels of health, and it continues to be a highly collaborative effort. There is a regulatory obligation and a legal requirement to wear a mask, and keep it on while on board. The government mandates this. If an individual chooses not to, our cabin crew, who are exceptionally trained, have been trained in a series of de-escalation techniques to handle any situations that could occur. 

PAX: Prior to COVID-19, Air Canada was making huge strides in its fight against single use plastic (SUPs), like eliminating plastic stir sticks. But the new CleanCare+ distributes single-use plastics again, like mini hand sanitizers. Has the pandemic essentially overthrown the company's eco-friendly efforts?

SF: I like to believe we’ll absolutely be able to be environmental, but it’s all guided by government regulations. We face the biggest challenge in aviation history that has ceased to operate across borders. 

In the middle of this, we have to make sure that we aren't contributing to something that makes the industry a meaningful vector for COVID-19 to spread. So yes, passengers might see water bottles again, but there has to be a balancing act and we are absolutely committed to doing that. We have a very aggressive environmental campaign, but you have to ensure that as limitations are introduced, that you have the ability to fulfill those requirements.  

We have not evaded our commitments to the reduction of SUPs, but a public health emergency takes priority.

For more information on Air Canada's CleanCare+ program, click here.

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