Lufthansa, the biggest airline in Europe by passengers carried, is converting one of its airplanes into an “Ebola jet,” whose mission will be ferrying health personnel to treatment facilities in the West.
According to German magazine Der Spiegel, Lufthansa will turn one of its Airbus A340 long-range planes into a medical evacuation transport, featuring three “isolation cells” that will ensure patients can be transported safely.
The Ebola epidemic is concentrated in West Africa. The hemorrhagic fever has infected more than 14,000 people since March in Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone, according to the World Health Organization, making this the biggest outbreak on record. More than 5,000 have died, according to WHO data. At least 20 cases have been treated in Europe and the U.S. Three were Germans: One recovered, one is in treatment, and one died.
Beginning Monday until the end of November, experts from Lufthansa Technik, the company’s aircraft maintenance arm, and doctors from the Robert Koch Institut -- the German equivalent of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- will oversee the conversion of the four-engine airliner, which was requested by the federal government.
Der Spiegel said, without specifying sources, the project had been in the works under great secrecy since September when the Foreign Ministry began mulling the idea of having a dedicated transport plane for infected German Ebola volunteers. The only other options available to transport Ebola patients are currently two U.S. jets, the magazine said.
Last August, Der Spiegel wrote that the German Defense Ministry had been forced to admit the country lacked the means to quickly and safely transport to a hospital in the West any of its military personnel employed in the fight against Ebola who may get infected.
A twin-aisle jet carrying about 280 passengers when in normal service, the airplane, an A340-300 model, was chosen because of its long range, allowing it to reach most of the world without fuel stops. The plane would also be available for citizens of other nations.
An unspecified German firm will build three sterile, hermetically sealed containers, 4-by-4 meters (13 feet by 13 feet), that will be installed in place of passenger seats. To avoid contamination of the main cabin, the isolation chambers will have their own ventilation system. The flight crew will be composed of volunteers.
According to the weekly magazine, the particular airplane chosen bears the identifier D-AIGZ in the German aviation registry. Aviation fleet tracker Airfleets says the airplane was built in 2000 and bears the name of Villingen-Schwenningen, a picturesque town in Germany’s Black Forest region.
Der Spiegel did not specify whether Lufthansa will receive payment from the German government or any other government for the use of the plane, nor whether it will be compensated for the loss of revenue while the jet is unable to fly passengers. Requests to the airline for clarification on payment, and whether the plane would go back into commercial service at some point, had not been answered at the time of publication.