Turkish low-cost carrier Pegasus Airlines has taken steps to mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and boost customer confidence in flying. Murat Demirbilek, vice president of ground operations, explains all…
It has been an incredibly hard time for both airlines and handlers (as well as self-handlers such as Pegasus is to some extent). What percentage of your normal operational intensity are you currently working at, in terms of flight numbers?
In 2020, we were able to operate more than 50% of our flights as compared to the previous year. Pegasus Airlines has played a global role in both building trust and supporting the aviation sector during this period, working alongside such international bodies as the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to lobby for harmonised Covid-19 international regulations and standards, and Pegasus has also signed the COVID-19 Aviation Health Safety Protocol published jointly by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
We have also worked together with our national authorities such as the health and transport ministries in Turkey, and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation.
Can you summarise the key measures that Pegasus Airlines has introduced into its general operations in its attempts to combat the pandemic and keep ground staff, crews and passengers healthy and safe?
Looking at the overall picture in Turkey first, Turkish citizens and certain other residents, including all our Pegasus Airlines employees, must have an HES code to be allowed to travel on domestic flights in Turkey. [The Hayat Eve Sığar – Life at Home – also known as HES, code is not mandatory for foreign citizens.]
We have been working hard to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The HES code application is a new requirement that has been developed as part of the new measures from the Turkish Ministry of Health so that our guests can fly safely within Turkey and to ensure that travel is managed during circumstances of increased risk. These guests cannot book tickets or check in online or at the airport without an HES code, and therefore cannot travel domestically without it.
In terms of Pegasus’s operations and at airports, all guests are required to wear masks at an airport and inside an aircraft cabin. Everyone passing through the first and second security gates has their temperature taken, and anyone with a high temperature is not allowed to board their flight. There is also a lot of importance given to ensuring everyone at airports pay attention to social distancing in queues and waiting areas, as well as to complying with all the relevant guidance issued by the airport.
As a ground handling operation, a summary of our key Covid-19 measures and precautions is as follows:
1) We have enhanced our DCS [departure control system] in order to minimise contact with physical documents such as boarding cards and baggage tags, so that our guests now primarily check in online and we send boarding cards and baggage tags to mobile phones via messages.
2) Boarding is also carried out in accordance with social distancing procedures. We now perform zoned boarding according to passenger seat numbers. By dividing the cabin seating into four, we now announce and proceed with the boarding of guests first for rows 1-6, then 25-40, then 7-16, and finally 17-24.
3) We ensure that passengers are placed as far from each other as possible, according to the load factor of the aircraft, during the pre-flight seat assignment process.
4) From June, when we restarted flights, we didn’t permit cabin baggage on board except for one small item such as a handbag or laptop bag, and our guests were able to check their cabin baggage in free of charge. Since January 2021, in parallel with the changes in the regulations, we have updated our policy such that each of our guests is now permitted to take one piece of cabin baggage on board.
5) We have reduced passenger buses’ permitted capacities by half in order to adhere to social distancing procedures for open parking position boarding. We have also added announcements on our buses to urge adherence to social distancing guidance on board.
6) All our staff wear visors at check-in desks and, to facilitate social distancing, our employees [at the desks] and guests are separated by a plexi-glass panel. All our self-check-in kiosks also have plexi-glass panels dividing them.
7) We have also improved hygiene for the safety of our guests as we now frequently disinfect the touch screens of the self-check-in Express Baggage kiosks in the terminal, and we have placed sanitising stations next to each of these kiosks. Our guests can travel without coming into contact with anybody by undertaking all check-in procedures at our new-generation kiosks. They can tag their bags and leave their bags at the bag drops.
8) We have provided all personnel with personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks and visors, and we have ensured that they are changed at least every four hours, taking into account the conditions of use.
9) We have also reconfigured the offices and spaces that our employees use according to social distancing rules, and placed sanitising stations in these areas. Plus, we have implemented a regular disinfection programme for office spaces.
10) In addition to the regulation that is in place requiring that aircraft are disinfected at least once every 24 hours, Pegasus ensures that every aircraft that has sufficient time on the ground is also disinfected.
10) Finally, in order to clearly communicate our requirements for the disinfection of our aircraft, we also created a video with the support of our hygiene manager for a clear explanation of the mandatory disinfection process, which we have shared with all stations where we operate.
Have you or your ground services providers introduced a specialised disinfection programme in relation to GSE?
For GSE vehicles and equipment, we have worked in co-ordination with our occupational health and safety team to create a matrix for the systematic disinfection times of vehicles and equipment. We have also created a dedicated cleaning and disinfection team to manage the disinfection process of aircraft, vehicles and equipment on the apron and ensure that they are disinfected at scheduled intervals.
Do your staff or your ground handlers use PPE when working on Pegasus aircraft turnarounds?
Yes, as noted above, we have provided our staff with comprehensive protection measures and PPE. We provide our teams with masks, disinfecting wipes with 80% alcohol content for their own personal use, protective goggles and disposable overalls.
In addition, we have set up a test centre at our home airport [Sabiha Gökçen] solely for our own personnel. We conduct routine tests and work tirelessly to keep our personnel safe and healthy.
Have these changes been made at other stations in your network besides Sabiha Gökçen?
We are working hard to ensure that procedures are the same at all our airports where the infrastructure permits.
Pegasus Airlines now has a growing network of 111 destinations, made up of 35 in Turkey and 76 other international destinations in 42 countries across Europe, Russia and the Caucasus, the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.
Have these various measures proved successful in protecting your employees and any other individuals that might otherwise have been affected?
These measures have had a very positive impact on both our employees and our guests. It has been very important in gaining trust.
Have the changes represented a significant financial cost to your business? Have they affected productivity, in terms of meaning greater staff or equipment downtime or longer turnaround times, for example?
Of course, these measures have a cost attached to them. However, the cost of our aircraft not flying is far greater. Furthermore, rather than cost, our main priority is to ensure that we provide our guests and employees with a healthy and safe travel environment.
Do you have plans, and perhaps a possible schedule, on when and how Pegasus will be able to remove these precautionary measures?
The decisions made by national and international authorities are crucial in this regard. We continue our operations in line with the relevant rules and regulations. When positive developments begin to occur and we can be sure that both our guests and employees are safe, we will then begin to re-evaluate the issue of measures.