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Since the beginning of 2020, 1.2 billion travelers have flown on planes. A new tally of COVID-19 cases reported by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) shows that of those travelers, 44 have reported becoming infected with COVID-19 while in-flight.
“The risk of a passenger contracting COVID-19 while onboard appears very low,” said Dr. David Powell, medical advisor for IATA. “With only 44 identified potential cases of flight-related transmission among 1.2 billion travelers, that’s one case for every 27 million travelers. 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.”
Powell emphasized that the majority of the positive cases occurred before wearing face coverings while onboard became a widespread practice.
Aircraft airflow systems, High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, the natural barrier of the seatback, the downward flow of air and high rates of air exchange efficiently reduce the risk of disease transmission onboard in normal times.
IATA reviewed a joint publication released by Airbus, Boeing and Embraer that encompassed separate computational fluid dynamics (CFD) research conducted by each manufacturer in their aircraft.Data from the simulations showed similar results, according to IATA: “Aircraft airflow systems, High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, the natural barrier of the seatback, the downward flow of air and high rates of air exchange efficiently reduce the risk of disease transmission onboard in normal times.”
Although IATA concedes that there is no way to create an exact tally of possible positive COVID-19 cases associated solely with flying, outreach to airlines and low numbers reported in a peer-reviewed study by Freedman and Wilder-Smith in the Journal of Travel Medicine support that COVID-19 transmission on planes is not widespread when passengers wear masks.
Mask wearing has become a near standard requirement on most airlines since the June publication and implementation of the Takeoff Guidance by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
But with just 44 published cases of potential inflight COVID-19 transmission among 1.2 billion travelers, the risk of contracting the virus on board appears to be in the same category as being struck by lightning.
“ICAO’s comprehensive guidance for safe air travel amid the COVID-19 crisis relies on multiple layers of protection, which involve the airports as well as the aircraft,” Powell said. “Mask wearing is one of the most visible. But managed queuing, contactless processing, reduced movement in the cabin and simplified onboard services are among the multiple measures the aviation industry is taking to keep flying safe. And this is on top of the fact that airflow systems are designed to avoid the spread of disease with high air flow rates and air exchange rates, and highly effective filtration of any recycled air.”
IATA also emphasizes that elements of aircraft design have helped add a layer of protection that contributes to low rates of in-flight transmission, including limited face-to-face interactions since passengers face forward and move little. IATA also points to the fact that “air is exchanged 20-30 times per hour onboard most aircraft, which compares very favorably with the average office space (with an average of two to three times per hour) or schools (with an average of 10-15 times per hour).”
Aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus have been conducting simulations to research how the cabin environment compares to other indoor spaces.
“After multiple, highly detailed simulations using the most accurate scientific methods available, we have concrete data that reveals the aircraft cabin offers a much safer environment than indoor public spaces,” said Bruno Fargeon, project lead of the Airbus Keep Trust in Air Travel Initiative. “The way that air circulates, is filtered and replaced on airplanes creates an absolutely unique environment in which you have just as much protection being seated side by side as you would standing six feet apart on the ground.”
Alexandre de Juniac, director general and CEO of IATA, believes that while there is no way to live completely risk free during the pandemic, the combination of measures being put on place on aircraft today should reassure travelers in the safety of flying.
“Nothing is completely risk-free,” he said. “But with just 44 published cases of potential inflight COVID-19 transmission among 1.2 billion travelers, the risk of contracting the virus on board appears to be in the same category as being struck by lightning.”
The DetailsInternational Air Transport Associationwww.iata.org