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Fit To Fly

Why do airlines sometimes have to say ‘No’ to guests? Are there restrictions in place that prevent an airline from carrying certain guests? Captain Lim Khoy Hing gives you the inside scoop.

Infectious Travel

Nobody likes having travel plans disrupted especially after months of planning. However, when the unexpected happens, one is thrown into a dilemma. What if your child suddenly becomes infected with chicken pox? Unfortunately, you may have to reschedule your family holidays.

     So, can you travel if your child has a minor case of an infectious disease or skin condition? You may, if you have a medical certificate or doctor’s letter confirming the child is fit to fly. However, many are unclear about the general requirements or restrictions.

     In order to fly, a medical certificate will need to be dated not more than seven days from the date of travel and the guardian is required to sign a ‘Limited Liability Statement’ upon check-in confirming the child’s fitness to travel.


     Nevertheless, airlines reserve the right to decline guests suffering from infectious, contagious or chronic diseases that may deteriorate during the journey. They can refuse to board any guests that they believe unfit to travel. If there are concerns or indications that a guest may have an infectious disease or skin problem, the airline may require medical clearance.

     The main rationale is that airlines have to exercise their responsibility wisely to ensure that the safety and well-being of all passengers are taken care of. This is in compliance with global health regulations and standards.

Cabin Air Condition

Some guests often wonder how one can still be well after having spent hours with hundreds of other passengers in the cabin, especially when some could be ill (or infectious) with medical problems that are not immediately obvious.

     Studies have shown that, in terms of the spread of contagious diseases, cabin air is often cleaner and healthier than commonly believed.

     This is because most planes have very good ventilation systems. On most aircraft, air is also circulated through hospital grade HEPA (High Efficiency Particle Arresting) filters that remove 99.97 per cent of bacteria on board. On average, cabin air is completely refreshed 20 times per hour, compared with just 12 times per hour in an office building.

     Misconceptions that cabin air is filthy and germ-laden probably stem from older planes with poor ventilation. In reality, this is far from the truth in most modern planes today.

     Also there’s a myth that pilots often tinker with the airflow switches in an effort to save fuel. This, I have heard being mentioned in the past with regards to the older Boeing 727 planes, but definitely not on newer planes.


     Let me elaborate a little on the composition of the air on board. The cabin air in today’s planes is a mixture of fresh and recirculated air. The other part of the recirculated air comes from the bleed air of the engines. In this way, the humidity and temperature inside the cabin can be comfortably controlled and maintained.

     As such, the air is a lot cleaner and healthier than what most people think. Even in very crowded planes, it is no more germ-laden than most other enclosed spaces as the air filters from the recirculated air are of ‘hospital quality’. The other general complaint about cabin air is its dryness. The humidity is around 12 per cent mainly because when cruising at high altitudes, the moisture content is very low. But the good news is that dryness, though irritating, actually keeps the air clean.

Dead Man Flying

Another in-flight issue is what happens when a passenger dies in a flight due to a medical condition? This is not a topic that’s often brought up, but having a death occur during a flight does happen, and transporting the remains of the deceased is not uncommon.

     This actually happened on one of my flights when I brought my wife along for a stay-over flight in a foreign country. The passenger concerned was afflicted with terminal cancer and his last wish was to be buried in his homeland: Turkey. He was accompanied by a nurse, and was not expected to survive the flight, but the crew was not informed about it until it had actually happened. There are a set of procedures to be followed when such an event occurs. Basically, the deceased passenger must be moved to an empty seat if available or, brought to a crew rest area to be laid down and covered.

     If there’s no space available, the deceased passenger may be strapped-in more tightly with efforts made to cover the body. This is usually made to place the body out of view of other passengers.

     On that day, things happened so discreetly that other passengers were not even aware of what had happened. In fact, my wife told me that she was unperturbed by the incident as it was very professionally handled.

     Additionally, an airline may also be faced with the issue of transporting a dead body. When a passenger dies overseas and his or her remains need to be transported back to his or her place of birth, most countries demand a huge list of transport requirements to enable the remains to be flown out. This includes the Death Certificate issued by the authority in concern where the death occurred, international transit permits for the human remains issued by the local health authority where the death occurred, sanitary epidemiologic confirmation that the deceased neither died of infectious disease nor in an area of infectious diseases, embalming certificate, burial permit and other relevant documentation that must all be validated by the consulate in the country of shipping origin. The airline must also have the necessary equipment in the aircraft to transport the remains in a manner that will not only respect the mortal remains, but also ensure the body does not contaminate perishables and other goods being transported by the aircraft. In the event that the next of kin or the airline is not able to fulfill these requirements, an airline will not be in a position to transport the remains of the deceased.


A Sad Flight Home

Sadly, I have also had to fly home a passenger who had a heart attack during her holiday in Shanghai. Getting the necessary documentation in order to leave the country was an even greater hassle for the family than transporting the deceased back in the Boeing 777 cargo hold.

     By coincidence, I was the captain of this particular flight on that day and the deceased happened to be the mother of a very close friend of mine on board.

     He felt extremely grateful that I was ferrying his mother to rest in her place of birth rather than being buried in a distant land. It was a great relief to him despite the sadness but I was merely doing my normal duty to fly the plane home safely for everyone.

     I hope this article is able to clear the air about why some airlines are particular about the health and well-being of their guests on board, and how the purity and humidity of cabin air is maintained. Illness and death are certainly parts of life, but it becomes a somewhat complicated issue when air travel is involved. The inconvenience of rescheduling a flight due to the illness of a young child or loved ones needs to be weighed against safety guidelines and policies that are set in place to protect every passenger. Hopefully, you will now understand more about why airlines make a certain stand in such cases, and realise that we are here to serve and ensure your safety. 

Below are illness and the time frames allowed for travel.

Chicken Pox: Five days after the rash first appeared, providing the spots are scabbed over

Measles: Five days after the rash first appeared

Mumps: Five days after the swelling first started

Rubella: Five days after the rash first appeared

Tuberculosis: If medical certificate proves that the guest is not infectious

Whooping Cough: Five days after starting antibiotic treatment or three weeks after the onset of symptoms if not treated

Source: www.askairasia.com 

Capt. Lim’s first book, Life in the Skies, will be soon launched. You can purchase it on-board AirAsia flights or on-line at AirAsia Megastore at www.airasiamegastore.com. Stay tuned for more information on the launch date of this great collection of articles, anecdotal stories and observations of this veteran aviator.


AirAsia X A330/A340 pilot who also used to fly the Boeing 777. He has logged a total of more than 25,500  flying hours and is now a Simulator Flight Instructor with Air Asia X. In his spare time, he shares his opinion on aviation issues with others. For more air travel and aviation stories, check out his website, ‘Just About Flying’ at www.askcaptainlim.com.