- Experts say there is some risk to flying on an airplane during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- How high the risk is depends on factors such as ventilation inside the plane as well as if the airline fills the middle seats.
- They say passengers should practice mask wearing and physically distancing not only on the plane but inside the terminal.
For many of us, it’s been the summer of the “staycation.”
A recent study found that as many as two-thirds of Americans are uncomfortable with flying on an airplane during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Their fears may be justified.
The novel coronavirus tends to spread more easily in enclosed spaces where large groups of people gather, such as bars, churches, and funeralsTrusted Source.
That certainly makes a crowded airplane seem potentially risky.
Earlier this summer, the Department of Transportation released guidelines to help airports and airlines protect passengers and airline workers by implementing safety measures such as mask wearing, enhanced cleaning and disinfecting, and limiting seating for passengers.
So just how safe is it to board a plane right now?
Healthline consulted with several experts — including one who penned new research estimating the likelihood of contracting the virus on a plane — about whether it’s safe to jet to your favorite destination, the risks that are involved, and what you can do to protect yourself.
There haven’t been reports yet of super spreading events on airplanes.
Good ventilation could be a factor.
“Based on the ventilation systems on aircraft, I think it would be very unlikely you’d have a super spreading event where 50 people on the flight get sick from one person,” said Dr. Henry Wu, an assistant professor and senior physician at the Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Emory TravelWell Center in Georgia. “Unless there’s a malfunction in the ventilation system, I just think it’s very, very unlikely.”
But could somebody spread the virus to the person next to them, or to someone in the row in front of them, or in back of them?
“I think we should assume it’s possible and that it does occur, even if it’s a little hard to prove,” Wu told Healthline.
It’s difficult to prove because travel involves contact with many people — in the cab ride to the airport, in the airport terminal, in the airport bathroom, and then on the airplane.
Any sort of public activity during a COVID-19 outbreak is going to involve some risk, according to Wu.
“What’s unique about air travel is the close proximity you have to potentially more than one person, potentially with others from parts of the country, or even world where there may be higher risk of COVID-19,” he said. “You typically on a flight may not have a lot of control over where you sit. Obviously, flights vary in duration and the longer the flight or the exposure to that situation, the more that risk increases.”
While driving in a car to your destination may offer more control, with air travel you’re merely along for the ride.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s so dangerous that none of us should do it, but it does introduce a level of uncertainty which you cannot completely eliminate,” Wu said.
Precautionary measures the airlines are taking and consistent mask wearing can reduce risk, but it’s always there.
“Since the risk cannot be completely mitigated, I do still advise travelers to carefully weigh the importance of the trip as well as their personal risk factors or people in their families if they have risk factors for severe illness,” Wu said. “I think the reality is that air travel, like many activities in public, do bring in some unique situations that may increase your risk of COVID-19.”
Increased disinfection procedures, electrostatic spraying of cabins, and ultraviolet light used to disinfect surfaces are just some of the measures being taken by airline carriers.
One point of contention has been spacing between passengers, as pointed out by Arnold Barnett, a professor of management science and statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who recently released research focused on the middle seat.
“Basically, there is a disagreement among airlines on a safety matter, which is very rare,” he explained to Healthline. “Usually, if there are disagreements, they’re very covert. This is very overt.”
Many airlines are limiting the number of seats for sale on their flights, which allows for seat spacing between individuals not traveling together. Using his mathematics and statistics knowledge, Barnett set out to estimate the risks.
“I thought, well, what is the risk level if you fill the plane? What is the risk level if you keep the middle seat open but otherwise fill the plane, and how big is the difference?” Barnett said. “Instead of just saying it’s safe or it’s not, can we put a number on it? And that’s what I tried to do.”
In a pre-print that has not yet been peer reviewed, Barnett estimated that if all seats are full, the chance that you would contract the novel coronavirus is about 1 in 4,300.
If the middle seat is kept empty, but the plane is two-thirds full with window and aisle seats, the odds drop to about 1 in 7,700.
These are estimates that he doesn’t deem as particularly safe.
“I personally don’t think it’s so low,” he explained. “It’s about the same as the risk of 2 hours on the ground.”
Additionally, Barnett found you’re more likely to die by contracting the novel coronavirus on a plane versus dying in a plane crash.
“I did a paper earlier this year and estimated the death risk per flight is something like 1 in 34 million [in a crash],” he said. “And now we’re talking about something which is clearly higher than one in a million, so it’s really many times the risk.”
Durland Fish, PhD, a professor emeritus of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health in Connecticut, found the Barnett paper “interesting, but theoretical and based upon assumptions that may or may not be accurate.”
“Nevertheless, his conclusion that empty middle seats would reduce risk is important and makes sense,” Fish told Healthline. “Hopefully, it will be adopted by all of the airlines.”
With the airlines losing millions as this crisis continues, Fish thinks they should invest in an experimental study to demonstrate travel safety with real data.
“Aerosolized particles can be measured, and patterns of dispersal can be determined,” he explained. “Artificially generated aerosols or normal aerosols from uninfected people placed in specific areas should provide insight as to the fate of potentially infective particles and risk of encounter by other people.”
“The airlines seem not to be doing much to demonstrate safety other than saying what measures they are taking,” he added. “But skeptical people like me are not going to believe them without providing objective data.”