With many Americans still terrified of the novel coronavirus, it’s small wonder that the aviation industry is dealing with financial turbulence.
Industry reports reveal that domestic air travel is down by more than 60% compared to this time last year. Airline employees have been laid off in droves, and their unions representing airline workers have called for federal stimulus aid to combat the effect of the travel restrictions and public fear of flying.
This is understandable given the government-mandated travel restrictions in place for much of the spring and summer, but at this point it’s worth asking the question: Is it safe to travel by air?
The short answer is a qualified “yes,” but let’s sift through some of the data.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website continues to insist that the best way to prevent transmission is to simply stay home. According to the site:
“Air travel requires spending time in security lines and airport terminals, which can bring you in close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces. Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes. However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and sitting within 6 feet of others, sometimes for hours, may increase your risk of getting COVID-19.”
This boilerplate language does not directly address whether your chances of contracting the disease increase significantly.
Airlines have taken extensive measures to protect passengers from the virus, from sanitation and mask mandates to keeping middle seats vacant in some cases. Some are offering rapid testing for passengers for a fee in certain cases.
Most importantly: the filtration systems on most airplanes do in fact keep the air clean.
Two recent studies, one by the U.S. Department of Defense and one by researchers at Harvard and the Aviation Public Health Initiative, have confirmed that the onboard air filters remove more than 99% of viral particles from cabin. And according to the International Air Transport Association, there are only 44 identified potential cases of flight-related transmission among 1.2 billion travelers.
On the other hand, some international flights have reported incidents. In October, 13 cases of COVID-19 were linked to an Irish flight through contact tracing, though this may have been due to crowded airport lines.
The risk of catching the coronavirus while flying is extremely low, but it does exist. Still, people are likely not at any greater risk of contracting the disease on an aircraft than in a store or a restaurant, especially if they are taking safeguards. As our knowledge of the virus increases, our fear of returning to more normal activities should cautiously diminish.
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette