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You can still catch COVID-19 in this place that experts are calling safe

Published Oct 23rd, 2020 6:13PM EDT
Coronavirus transmission
Image: Юрий Красильников/Adobe

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  • A new study that analyzes the risk of coronavirus transmission on commercial airplane flights should offer a dose of good news to travelers eager to take to the skies again.
  • The US Department of Defense report finds that the risk of COVID-19 exposure during a flight is highly unlikely — not impossible, but very rare.
  • This comes as, on the ground at least, the US continues to set new records in terms of daily coronavirus case numbers.

In recent days, the TSA reported having just screened a record number of passengers in the nation’s airports — 6.1 million, to be exact, for the week of October 12-18. That’s the biggest stream of travelers who’ve flowed through TSA checkpoints around the country since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which would seem to suggest that passengers are increasingly less fearful about the prospect of coronavirus transmission on a commercial airplane flight.

That stands in contrast to, well, how things are on the ground. The deeper we get into the final quarter of 2020, the worse the pandemic seems to get — in fact, the US just surpassed 70,000 new COVID-19 cases in a single day, a record not seen since back in July. But back to the issue of air travel. Just how safe are airplanes, really, and is it even safe to travel right now?

For the purposes of this post, we’ll only be dealing with the actual transit, from Point A to Point B, via plane. Conditions on the ground, of course, will differ depending on your destination — even though, broadly speaking, almost everywhere in the US is seeing some degree of coronavirus resurgence right now.

The US Department of Defense released a study a few days ago offering a comprehensive assessment of commercial airline flight risk relative to coronavirus transmission. It found, among other things, that “the time required (for a passenger) to be exposed to an infectious dose is a minimum of 54 hours when sitting next to an index patient in the economy section of (a) 777.”

The risk is incredibly low, in other words. But the World Health Organization decided to take this opportunity to nevertheless remind people that “low” is not the same thing as there being zero chance. “In-flight transmission is possible but the risk appears to be very low, given the volume of travelers and the small number of case reports,” the WHO told Reuters in a statement this week. “The fact that transmission is not widely documented in the published literature does not, however, mean it does not happen.”

Because of these findings, some airlines are getting a bit more aggressive in how they talk about their cabin safety. Southwest and United Airlines, have both tried to woo fliers back by promising that the risk of contract COVID-19 on a flight is “virtually non-existent”. On a related note, Southwest used this research to finally reverse course and return to its normal policy of booking middle seats instead of keeping them free to promote social distancing.

Other key findings, meanwhile, from the DoD survey include:

  • Aerosol exposure risk is minimal even during long duration flights, but typically highest in the row of an index patient. Rows in front and behind the index patient have the next highest risk, on average.
  • While there is a measurable difference in middle vs. aisle or window seat, there is no practical difference at these high overall reduction levels.
  • As testing did not incorporate large droplet contamination, (the researchers) recommend continued disinfectant cleaning and mask-wearing, or testing this transmission mechanism in an alternative methodology.
Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.