- Flying during the novel coronavirus pandemic can be scary, as the virus spreads better in indoor settings where social distancing isn’t always possible.
- Some studies have shown that the risk of getting COVID-19 during a flight is low, but still possible.
- New research shows that a simple coronavirus precaution significantly reduces the risk of transmission.
- Continuous face mask use reduces the risk of COVID-19 spread on planes, with the plane’s advanced filtration system also playing an important role.
The novel coronavirus is most dangerous in indoor settings, where droplets and aerosols can easily carry it well beyond the six feet deemed safe for social distancing. Potentially crowded places like bars, restaurants, and theaters sound incredibly scary, and that’s why health officials warn against attending crowded events without observing strict health measures.
For the same reason, flying during the pandemic can be risky, although planes have a major advantage over other crowded indoor settings. They feature advanced air filtering systems that can replace the entire air in the cabin every few minutes and kill coronavirus particles in the process. A series of studies have shown recently that it’s relatively safe to fly, although it’s not a risk-free endeavor. But brand new research shows that your chances of surviving the flight without risking a coronavirus infection increase dramatically if you adhere to safety measures. In particular, it turns out that one thing can significantly reduce the risk of transmission: Your face mask.
Scientists have used data from flights between Dubai and Hong Kong to determine face mask effectiveness during flights. They chose Hong Kong because the airport tests every passenger that arrives with a regular PCR test and then quarantines the travelers for 14 days in a single room. Then they test the passengers again. And they looked at Dubai flights because Emirates enforced a strict masking policy since April. Passengers and crew have to wear masks, and flight attendants will enforce masks during the flight.
Infectious disease doctor David O. Freedman from the University of Alabama at Birmingham looked at all the Emirates flights from June 16th and July 5th between the two cities. In just three weeks, Emirates had five flights with seven or more infected people on each flight. In total, 58 COVID-19 patients made the eight-hour journey. Bot nobody else on those flights got infected. That’s anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 travelers, according to the study.
“Those were flights with higher risk, and yet there was no transmission,” Freedman.
COVID-19 spread aboard planes is still possible, and the researcher pointed to a different Emirates flight that had 27 infected people on board. Only two in-flight transmissions occurred during the eight-hour flight.
Freedman also looked at a different type of high-risk flight where there was no spread. An executive jet flew from Tokyo to Tel Aviv. Two out of the 11 people on the flight were infected, but they did not pass the virus to other people. “They were all sitting in a very small environment because it was an executive jet,” Freedman said. “And yet again, there was no transmission because passengers were meticulously masked. The crew supervised the masking.”
“There’s encouraging evidence from a number of flights that masking does help greatly, but it would be nice to study it better,” the scientist concluded. “The circumstantial evidence is, your risk is low on a plane if there is rigid masking.”
What makes planes different from other public indoor places is the filtration system that allows the air to circulate. This further enhances the effectiveness of masks. Air ventilation is becoming an increasingly important topic. Dr. Anthony Fauci is already recommending people to air their homes during the winter. The German government promotes the simple airing of homes and other indoor spaces by opening windows as a health measure for preventing COVID-19.
Airplanes already feature sophisticated air filtration systems that exchange the air in the cabin frequently. The U.S. Transportation Command just released a study detailing the risk of COVID-19 exposure on contracted aircraft:
Mannequins with and without face masks sat in various seats on the aircraft while fluorescent tracer particles were released at intervals of two seconds to simulate breathing for a minute during ground and in-flight tests. Real-time fluorescent particle sensors were placed throughout the aircraft at the breathing zone of passengers to measure concentration over time.
The test revealed that the released aerosol was rapidly diluted by the high air exchange rates observed in the airframes. The time the aerosol tracer particles remained detectable within the cabin averaged less than six minutes. For comparison, a typical American home takes around 90 minutes to clear these types of particles from the air. The high air exchange coupled with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration of all recirculated air, means a commercial aircraft’s air supply system provides protection greater than the design standards for a patient isolation room or a hospital operating room.
“The only opportunity to breathe the virus in comes from the air that passes by you before it goes through that ventilation system,” Virginia Tech engineer Linsey Marr told NPR. “And so that’s only going to happen if you’re sitting close to the person who’s sick.”
Wearing masks is the key element here, with Marr recommending more sophisticated face covers for flights. Masks like N95 and P100 respirators should be considered for flights rather than regular masks. Other safety measures are also recommended. You should wear eye protection on flights and avoid touching your face with dirty hands. Using hand disinfectant and disinfecting the objects around you is also advised.
While all this is great news about flying during the pandemic, the risk of infection remains. Freedman pointed out that there is one potential problem that can drive infection, and that’s the chaos that can occur during disembarking. That’s where people should remember to social distance rather than rush off the plane.
Then there’s always the risk of getting COVID-19 from the airport or en-route to it, but that’s an entirely different matter where all the regular precautions apply.