Airline Coronavirus Transmission Risk

Airline Coronavirus Transmission Risk

How Risky is Flying? What are the Cases of Coronavirus Transmission Aboard Airlines? This is something most anyone who is considering a flight soon, whether for work, to visit a family member, or a leisure trip, is preoccupied by.

Air Travel Risks: Enclosed Spaces, Close Proximity to Others

Undoubtedly, air travel is riskier than remaining at home. You have to get to the airport; fine if you're driving yourself and parking at the airport, but riskier if you have to take a taxi or car service. Then there's the airport itself, where, even if you're masked, you're indoors, in an enclosed space, and there will be at least some people (even if mainly kids) who aren't wearing a mask or aren't wearing one properly. Then there's boarding the plane through an enclosed jetway and being in proximity to passengers and crew, the actual plane flight, disembarkation, etc.

The CDC's travel advice notes that “social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and sitting within 6 feet of others, sometimes for hours, may increase your risk of getting COVID-19.” Everyone's seen the disappointing photos of fliers on a packed plane, since neither United nor American Airlines are blocking middle seats (if you can, fly JetBlue, which will block middle seats until October 15, 2020, or Delta, which will block middle seats until September 30, 2020). Fortunately, there have been some JetBlue Mint Deals on the new JetBlue Newark to LAX and Newark to SFO routes.

Even with airlines that block middle seats, it's a far cry from the kind of social distancing people do on the ground, where most people try to stay 6-10 feet apart. With a blocked middle seat, you're typically only a couple feet apart from the other passenger.

In terms of international flights, there's the example of a flight from the U.S. to Taiwan in March 2020, on which 12 passengers were later confirmed to have been infected and symptomatic at the time of flight. No secondary cases were confirmed among the 328 other passengers and flight crew members.

There have been very few instances of likely transmission on international flights; a notable one was a Chinese man on a flight from Singapore to Hangzhou, who was one of 16 passengers who became symptomatic. He had no exposure to Wuhan, but moved from his assigned seat (which was not by any infected passengers) to a seat that was near four infected passengers, in order to speak with his wife and child. He didn't wear his mask correctly when talking to them, and is believed to have become infected on the flight from one or more of the four nearby infected passengers.

Another case was a flight from the UK to Vietnam in March 2020, where one passenger may have infected up to 14 others — 12 of them seated nearby.

In an IATA survey of 18 airlines from January-March 2020, there were four instances of suspected in-flight coronavirus transmission, all from passenger to crew. There were also four cases of presumed pilot to pilot transmission.

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Air Travel Safer Than Most Other Indoor Venues

On the other hand, some airlines, such as Frontier Airlines CEO Barry Biffle, have called upon the CDC to amend its warning against air travel, noting that there are many fewer cases of coronavirus transmission attributed to air travel than to bars, restaurants, or other indoor venues open to the public.

Biffle notes that Frontier has received only 27 requests from the CDC over the past 7 months, since January 2020, for passenger contact information after a passenger on the flight tested positive for COVID-19. The CDC has then contacted passengers who were seated in the rows near the infected passenger to see if they were became ill. None did, according to Biffle.

The good news is that, while passengers are in a very tight space on an airline, there are factors that help make it much safer than bars and even many restaurants, as well as subways and trains.

Airline HEPA filters remove 99.9% of bacteria and virus particles, with a mixture of outside air and filtered recirculated air, which goes from the overhead air vents downward (not front to back). Cabin air is refreshed over ~3 minutes. Arguably the greatest risks are during boarding and deplaning (this is also why airlines are running the ventilation system during these times and have aimed to board and deplane in ways that minimize interpersonal contact) and if someone nearby is infected but not properly wearing a mask, such that s/he is shedding virus that gets into nearby passengers' nose, mouth or eyes.

The Upshot

Flying isn't without risk, but ironically, much of the risk is likely to happen outside the actual flight–the journey to/from the airport, the airport itself, and boarding/deplaning. It's a good time to use miles or extra money to fly business class (especially a JetBlue Mint Suite) to gain some extra space, and ideally a nonstop flight, to avoid a connection and the potential for additional exposure that accompanies layovers.

If you've flown during the pandemic, what was your experience?

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