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ATW Editor's Blog

For all of 2014’s heartbreaks, Brussels Airlines made brave call on Ebola


2014 was a tough year for the air transport industry. The disappearance of MH370, shooting down of MH17 and crash of QZ8501 each have left flight numbers etched into airline history and families forever bereft.

The industry was also challenged by another human tragedy, the Ebola virus outbreak. That hit the headlines again right at the end of the year when a Scottish health worker was diagnosed with Ebola after returning from Sierra Leone to the UK via flights with Air Maroc and British Airways.

Although the chances of anyone else on those flights becoming infected are extremely low – practically negligible – there was the inevitable call for heightened screening processes.

But there’s another side to the Ebola story that has been far less told and which bears testimony to how life’s tragedies can bring out the best in many people – including those in this very people-focused airline industry.

It’s a little known fact that Belgium-based Brussels Airlines is the only European carrier still serving the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown. Other carriers suspended services after the Ebola outbreak, but Brussels Airlines has continued its twice-weekly Airbus A330-300 service, providing a rare and essential aircraft conduit for medical equipment and health workers between Europe and the stricken African country.

Why does Brussels Airlines do this? “We feel it is our humanitarian duty,” the carrier’s VP external communications Geert Sciot told journalists at IATA’s annual media briefing day in Geneva in mid-December.

Brussels’ decision, Sciot admitted, has not been a good one from the airline’s business perspective. “If you look at it from a marketing perspective I think it would be better to stop flying because your brand will not become better from that,” he said.  “You get a lot of respect and support from the countries, from the governments, but marketing wise and for your brand, it is not the best thing to do.”

Some people have avoided flying on Brussels since it became known that it was continuing its Sierra Leone services and transporting health workers, so passenger numbers are down.

Compare that attitude with workers such as Margaret Ann Harris of the World Health Organization (WHO), who briefed us at that media day on the facts of Ebola.

Harris showed slides of herself, colleagues and other aid workers – many of them volunteers - at work in those West African countries where there have been some 18,000 reported cases of Ebola and at least 6,000 deaths. They risk their lives daily, but they also understand the real risks and how to mitigate them.

Closing borders, suspending transport options and quarantining are neither necessary nor the solution, Harris said. For one thing, it drives people underground, makes people reluctant to report suspected cases, and cuts off critical economic drivers when they are most needed.

She explained that Ebola can only be transmitted via direct contact, and for someone to be infectious they would be so obviously sick and debilitated that it would be highly unlikely they could get through the airport or board a plane. Therefore, the chances of anyone catching the virus while on a plane are practically zero.

 “We’ve seen massive overreaction worldwide,” Harris said. “Closing borders, putting people in quarantine just makes people deny their symptoms, it makes people hide and once people hide a disease like that that is the very best way to spread.”

She said that much of the transmission of the virus in Africa’s affected nations has been due to very poor sanitation and to burial rituals that are extremely important within local cultures, but which involve a lot of handling of the corpse.

In a typical Western environment, those risks are mostly eliminated. And here’s the biggest point about Ebola: the most effective method of killing it is with soap and water.

“Yes, soap and water. Wash your hands,” Harris emphasized. “It’s a virus that’s eminently killable.” And she demonstrated the correct way to thoroughly wash your hands in a way that destroys the virus: vigorous washing for at least 60 second, linking your hands together, fingers overlapped so that all parts of the hand and wrists gets a thorough cleanse.

IATA has worked closely with WHO and regulatory authorities to ensure that airlines know the recommended precautions they should take. Brussels Airlines has followed those guidelines and given crews the option not to participate in the Sierra Leone flights.

To date, no one has been infected onboard a Brussels Airlines flight.

That’s the industry’s true and most inspiring story of 2014.

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