Is Air Travel Safe?

Many people are considering their travel options both for work an leisure in a world dominated by the fear of catching (and transmitting) COVID-19

Does coronavirus spread on airplanes?

Yes. The data is still coming in but there is a known March 2 flight from the United Kingdom to Vietnam where it is believed that a single passenger transmitted the virus to as many as 15 others including a crew member. As would be expected 12 of the passengers were sitting close to the suspected infected individual.

An informal survey of 18 major airlines has thus far identified at least four more episodes of transmission in the first quarter of 2020

Do other similar viruses also spread on planes?

Yes. Viruses which spread through coughing, sneezing and breathing such as influenza and SARS are known to have spread on aircraft. SARS – itself a coronavirus – is believed to have been carried by passengers on at least 40 fights and caused transmission to other passengers. Studies find that the closer to the infected person – the greater the risk

Why is risk of transmission risky on flights?

COVID-19 is very contagious and when emitted from the noses and mouths of the infected, these droplets can then transmit the virus in particular through the mouth, nose or eyes. Additionally close proximity when sitting, waiting in lines, shopping in the food halls and using public bathrooms all add to the risks.

What about aerosols?

While transmission via smaller particles than droplets – known as aerosols can float in the air longer and can be thus inhaled the risk is believed to be lower. Additionally due to the modern aircraft ventilation systems in use – the risk is further mitigated by such things as HEPA filters which should mitigate the risk of this sort of spread. The air on a plane is generally a 50-50 mix of sterile outside air and recirculated cabin air that’s been filtered. According to Airbus SE and Boeing Co., all their aircraft are fitted with HEPA filters, which capture particles as small as the virus.

Most airlines have or are making the wearing of face masks mandatory and passengers have been taken off fights for non-compliance.

What can airlines do to lower risk of the spread of COVID-19?

There are many actions airlines can and are taking to mitigate risks from the more frequent cleaning of aircraft to reducing lines when possible and maintain social distancing. Contactless payments and interactions are being introduced in a variety of situations as is the availability of hand sanitisers. Some airlines have chosen to limit the number of passengers on flights including leaving middle seat empty. Additionally the mandated use of masks by crew and passengers is instrumental in reducing spread.

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