By Joanna Bailey

A group of industry leaders in aviation, medicine and technology have come together to press the UK government for support on a new initiative. The idea, codenamed Project Caircraft, presents the idea of converting hundreds of grounded widebody aircraft into temporary intensive care wards to assist in the battle against COVID-19. The group already has the support of the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, but is pressing the government to support the idea in order to get it off the ground.

Could grounded widebodies be used as ICU wards?

As reported in The Times today, a group of UK experts from the aviation, technology and medical fields, have called upon the British government to lend support to a plan to convert hundreds of unused widebody planes into makeshift intensive care wards. The plan, they say, could create thousands of new beds to support the fight against COVID-19.

The group says that the concept has already been proven in military settings. With hundreds of widebody aircraft parked up around the UK and no end to the grounding in sight, it seems logical that these planes could be put to good use during their downtime.

Known as Project Caircraft, the plan has already received the support of the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and planes are already being offered for repurposing. However, the group says that the support of the UK government is required in order to begin work on the plan.

Why aircraft are the perfect intensive care environments

Aircraft, by their nature, already have oxygen delivery systems installed. Oxygen is one of the most critical tools in the fight against coronavirus, as many patients experience problems with breathing and severe lung infections. Just like operating theatres, aircraft use laminar airflow systems which is crucial in controlling contamination, such as airborne coronavirus.

Because of the high altitude most long haul planes operate in, the aircraft fuselage is hermetically sealed. This means the interior can be made completely airtight, which could serve to protect those outside from contaminated air inside the fuselage.

The group says that, by stripping out the seats inside passenger aircraft, planes like the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380 could be converted to hold between 100 and 150 intensive care beds. One of the people leading Project Caircraft, Chris Tarry – an aviation analyst – told The Times,

“The aircraft modifications are simple and could be achieved in days: remove seats, locate 100 to 150 ICU beds with relevant equipment — ventilators and oxygen machines — pipe in oxygen from an adjacent liquid oxygen tank and ground power.”

Airports are the ideal locations for intensive care facilities

The group further argues the benefits of using airports as temporary overflow for intensive care facilities, noting that by their nature they have excellent transport links, plenty of parking and even adjacent hotels for medical staff.

The group also floated the idea of using furloughed airline staff to help with the project, something we’ve seen suggested already in terms of cabin crew adding staff capacity to the new Nightingale Hospitals around the UK. Surgeon and academic Professor Jonathan Sackier, who is working on Project Caircraft, said that even with the new Nightingale Hospitals, the UK could still require more options. He told The Times,

“Might the new Nightingale hospitals be sufficient? Yes, they very well might be and represent a magnificent effort by all involved. But why take the risk of having insufficient beds to care for our sick? Let’s ensure we have an excess of ICU beds. This will save many lives.”

Sackier also noted the implications this type of innovation could have for the rest of the world. Nations with underdeveloped healthcare and low levels of ICU facilities could, he argues, benefit greatly from Project Caircraft, as most have at least some aviation infrastructure present.