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Is the plane that transports Ebola patients completely safe?

Transporting Ebola Patients
Phoenix Air calls the planes they use for patient evacuation and transfer "Emergency Rooms in the Sky."
Phoenix Air calls the planes they use for patient evacuation and transfer "Emergency Rooms in the Sky."
© Tami Chappell/Reuters/Corbis

The planes used to transport Ebola patients are highly modified Gulfstream jets. These jets are dedicated aircraft, used exclusively for patient transfer. One of the major modifications is a structure called the Aeromedical Biological Containment System (ABCS). The ABCS is basically a framed, clear plastic tent. It features a HEPA-filtered air supply that keeps the inside sterile and the rest of the cabin free of germs and infection. The ABCS must be large enough to contain not only the patient, but also medical personnel (in protective suits) to care for the patient, who is typically severely ill. It's an airborne isolation unit.

Before embarking on a flight, the crew makes arrangements for every possible scenario. They take into account possible flight diversions, delays, stops for fuel, weather issues and maintenance problems. Every airfield along the flight path is identified and authorities at each one are notified in the event the plane needs to land unexpectedly.

Each flight crew transporting the passenger is made up of essential members only, who have as little exposure to the patient area as possible. In fact, the ABCS is so contained, the flight crew didn't even wear full protective gear on their mission to pick up Nancy Whitebol, the second American Ebola patient (Kent Brantly had taken the maiden voyage two days earlier) [source: Crist]. All crew members are prepped on how to perform self-evaluation for symptoms after each flight, in addition to where and how to report them on the small chance any symptoms do appear.

Once the flight is over and a medical team in personal protective equipment safely removes the patient, a maintenance team (again, wearing protective gear) takes down the tent according to CDC protocol. The tent is built for single use and collapses in on itself. The crew then disposes of the tent as medical waste, and it's incinerated. Next, the entire cabin is sprayed down with disinfectant and decontaminated.

Of course, we're not talking Lysol-type disinfectant here. When the plane is decontaminated, the cleaning crew's to-do list includes:

  • Disinfecting every surface, regardless of whether it was touched, with hospital-grade cleaner
  • Disposing of any patient-care equipment as biohazard material
  • Cleaning and disinfecting anything reusable
  • Discarding linens
  • Following a stringent process of removing protective equipment and clothing and washing hands afterward

Phoenix Air operates missions not only for the CDC, but also the Defense Department, the Department of the Interior and NASA [source: Freedman].

As you can see, the CDC and Phoenix Air take every precaution to ensure that everyone on board, from the patients to the flight crew, are as safe as possible. And then the next time they get a call, they do the whole thing again.