A new study out of Harvard analysed the risk of Covid-19 transmission aboard commercial aircrafts and found, interestingly, that air travel is actual safer than going grocery shopping or eating dinner at a restaurant—provided a number of safety protocols are followed.
The study’s authors identified five “layers” of protection contributing to the low risk of infection on airplanes. The first is the highly efficient ventilation systems with which modern aircraft are equipped. These systems, according to the study, filter out 99 percent of airborne particles, refreshing the air every few minutes. It’s similar to being outside.
The second protection is face masks, which most if not all commercial airlines are now requiring everybody onboard—passengers and crew alike—to wear. Indeed, as the authors write, “Passengers who do not comply [with mask mandates] are often times placed on no-fly lists for the duration of the pandemic.” I wonder if the infraction also shows on AFP police checks.
Number three is regular cleaning and disinfection, particularly of surfaces that are frequently touched.
Fourth is screening. Ideally this would include a system of testing at airports. However, at the moment it’s mostly limited to temperature checks. “Until quick, inexpensive, and reliable airport testing is available,” the authors write, “this presents a risk.”
Education & awareness is the fifth and final “layer of protection” cited by the study, and simply involves providing travelers with reliable information about what the virus is, how it spreads, and how best to avoid contracting it.
With all the foregoing in place, the study says, the risk of infection is extremely low: “Since implementing these measures in the spring of 2020, and with millions of passenger hours flown, there has been little evidence to date of onboard disease transmission.”
When each layer of protection is present, flying poses a smaller Covid risk than “grocery shopping or eating out.”
But as CNN reports, a different study out of Ireland found that one person spread the virus to 13 of his/her fellow passengers during a seven hour flight this summer. On that flight, less than 20 percent of seats were occupied and everyone was made to wear masks.
How the virus managed to spread so prolifically on that flight is something of a mystery, especially since “four of the flight cases were not seated next to any other positive case, had no contact in the transit lounge, wore face masks in-flight and would not be deemed close contacts.”
In short, air travel is safe, except when it’s not.