How safe is it to fly during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Elianna Lev
·3 min read
A male passenger during the flight as seen with the mandatory facemask. Flying with Lauda Airbus A320 airplane with registration 9H-LMJ during the Covid-19 Coronavirus pandemic with passenger and crew wearing facemask. Laudamotion or Lauda is an Austrian low-cost carrier owned by Ryanair and operating by Ryanair codes FR for IATA, RYR for ICAO and RYANAIR callsign. The budget airline carrier is based in Vienna International Airport  VIE LOWW or Flughafen Wien-Schwechat in Austria with a fleet of 28 Airbus Aircraft. Vienna, Austria on October 12, 2020 (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A male passenger during the flight as seen with the mandatory facemask. Vienna, Austria on October 12, 2020 (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

What’s happening

Travelling isn’t what it used to be since the global pandemic was declared in March. Airlines have taken a hard hit with international travel restrictions and a decline in sales, with many having to scale back operations and staff. The Travel Security Administration checkpoint travel numbers between 2019 and 2020 illustrate that point: on October 21, 2019, it saw 2,245,199 travellers, while the same date of this year drew only 694,150 travellers.

Extra caution is being taken at airports around the world, however there’s still a lot of uncertainty about the safety of flying.

Why there’s debate

There are still so many unknowns about the virus, and that includes its transmission risk on airplanes. While many experts believe that transmission rates are low, due to the sophisticated air filtration system on airplanes, others say there’s more factors to consider, like where a passenger sits and if they’re wearing a mask. Some experts are also questioning certain studies, which have been funded by airlines. Others point out that it’s challenging to consider the safety of flying when so many cases of transmission are unreported.

What’s next

While air travel will likely continue in some capacity, despite the decline in the numbers of travellers, there will be an ongoing shift in the procedures needed to do so safely. Some of these include standard health screenings, like temperature checks before boarding, paperless documentation and PPE for flight crew.

Perspectives

Pros

The risk of spread through flights is low, but can’t be ruled out

"In-flight transmission is possible but the risk appears to be very low, given the volume of travellers and the small number of case reports. The fact that transmission is not widely documented in the published literature does not, however, mean it does not happen.” — World Health Organization, Reuters

One study of Emirates flights found masking on planes can be an effective measure of protection

"They were all sitting in a very small environment because it was an executive jet. And yet again, there was no transmission because passengers were meticulously masked. The crew supervised the masking." — Infectious disease Dr. David Freedman, NPR

U.S. Department of Defense study finds low risk of air transmission on packed flight

“Within the scope of the test, the results showed an overall low exposure risk from aerosolized pathogens like COVID-19 on these aircraft.” — Vice Adm. Dee Mewbourne, the deputy commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, Washington Post

Cons

Where you sit on a flight impacts the risk of catching the virus

“The greatest risk in flight would be if you happen to draw the short straw and sit next to or in front, behind or across the aisle from an infector.” — Richard Corsi, who studies indoor air pollution, Kaiser Health News

Studies show COVID-19 can spread on planes

"We conclude that the risk for on-board transmission of SARS-CoV-2 during long flights is real and has the potential to cause COVID-19 clusters of substantial size, even in business class—like settings with spacious seating arrangements well beyond the established distance used to define close contact on airplanes." — Nguyen Cong Khanh of the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology in Hanoi, CNN

Aviation industry’s safety analyst is “bad math:” scientist

“It was bad math. 1.2 billion passengers during 2020 is not a fair denominator because hardly anybody was tested. How do you know how many people really got infected? The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” — Dr. David Freedman, Reuters