Transmission of COVID-19 inflight is extremely rare, research says

Transmission of COVID-19 inflight is extremely rare, research says

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The chance of contracting the virus onboard a flight is lower than getting struck by lightning 

Recent low confidence in flying coupled with regional travel restrictions have left the travel industry struggling to keep its head above water. So it’s welcome news that, according to the latest research, the probability of contracting COVID-19 onboard an airplane is lower than getting hit by a lightning strike.

The recently published expert study was conducted by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) which analyzed the data from airplane manufacturers’ studies. IATA looked at the overall number of 1.2 billion passengers that flew between January and July 2020 and found that only 44 of them reported transmission thought to have been associated with their flight.

One case for every 27 million travelers

The overall risk of contracting the virus is calculated to be one case in 27 million travelers or, in other words, lower than a chance of getting struck by lightning.

Furthermore, the majority of cases were reported before IATA recommended wearing face masks onboard. Face masks became a common requirement for flying from June this year.

“The risk of a passenger contracting COVID-19 while onboard appears very low. With only 44 identified potential cases of flight-related transmission among 1.2 billion travelers, that’s one case for every 27 million travelers,” said Dr. David Powell, IATA’s Medical Advisor.

“We recognize that this may be an underestimate but even if 90% of the cases were unreported, it would be one case for every 2.7 million travelers. We think these figures are extremely reassuring.”

IATA based its research on studies from manufacturers Airbus, Boeing, and Embraer

Three manufacturers — Airbus, Boeing, and Embraer — conducted research of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) in their aircraft. Despite using different methodologies for their research, they have confirmed the spread of virus particles is limited by the aircraft airflow systems, air filters (HEPA), the physical barrier of the seatback, a high exchange of air, as well as by wearing a face mask. 

Airbus found that the “potential exposure was lower when seated side by side on a plane than when staying six feet apart in an environment such as an office, classroom, or grocery store.”

Boeing studied a number of different scenarios, including a coughing passenger with and without a mask in various seats across the aircraft. Their research concluded that “passengers sitting next to one another on an airplane is the same as standing more than seven feet (two meters) apart in a typical building environment.”

Similarly to the others, Embraer analyzed the cabin environment and the flow of droplets of a coughing passenger located in various seats, and confirmed that “the risk of onboard transmission is extremely low”, according to IATA’s publication.

“The human need to travel, to connect, and to see our loved ones has not disappeared. In fact, at times like this, we need our families and friends even more,” said Luis Carlos Affonso, Embraer’s Senior Vice-President of Engineering, Technology and Strategy.

“Our message today is that because of the technology and procedures in place, you can fly safely — all the research demonstrates this. In fact, the cabin of a commercial aircraft is one of the safer spaces available anywhere during this pandemic.”

IATA’s study aligns with other scientific publications on the topic, such as the recently published peer-reviewed study by Freedman and Wilder-Smith in the Journal of Travel Medicine.

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