Robert Silk
Robert Silk

New studies have produced comforting data related to air quality and the unlikeliness of Covid-19 transmission on aircraft.

But I worry that airlines, desperate to instill confidence in the general public, have begun overpromising on the safety of flying, especially as it relates to long-haul flights. 

With demand still down approximately two-thirds from last year, the airlines' aggressive push to boost confidence is understandable. A Harris poll this month found that just 22% of Americans say they are more likely to fly compared with three months ago.

Aided by new data, airlines do have a compelling case to make. A Department of Defense study published on Oct. 15 found that small virus droplets known as aerosols expelled from a sick passenger have no more than a 3-in-1,000 chance of reaching the breathing zone of a passenger in a neighboring economy seat.

The data, which assumed continuous mask-wearing by all passengers, "indicates an extremely unlikely aerosol exposure risk for a 12-hour flight," the authors said. 

A week earlier, Boeing released a cabin airflow simulation study concluding that 1 foot of separation in an airplane is comparable to a conference room with people spaced at least 7 feet apart.

In both studies, authors attributed the safety of cabins to the hospital-grade HEPA filters that commercial aircraft are equipped with.

Emboldened by the Defense Department study, United practically declared victory over the virus in an email that evening.

"Your risk of exposure to Covid-19 is almost nonexistent on our flights," it read. 

A week earlier, IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac had made a similarly over-the-top pronouncement, comparing the risk of contracting Covid-19 on a flight to the risk of being struck by lightning. His statement was based on IATA's calculation that no more than 44 cases of in-flight transmission are known to have occurred worldwide. 

If that number sounds ridiculously low, it is because IATA only counted cases confirmed in the small number of peer-reviewed studies that have been completed on the topic.

One of those peer-reviewed studies, however, is alarming. It details a March 10 Vietnam Airlines flight from London to Hanoi, during which one business-class passenger carrying Covid-19 was determined by the authors to have infected 15 other flyers.

The flight took place before mask mandates, a mitigating factor that shouldn't be ignored. But the fact that the spread was so pervasive, even in the spacious business-class section, amplified the authors' concern about the potential of long-haul flights to be Covid-19 superspreaders.

Meanwhile, the Western Australia Department of Health is still studying a July 1 Emirates flight from Dubai to Perth, Australia, that has been linked to 20 Covid-19 cases. Two of those cases are a colleague and his wife, who my colleague said were infected with Covid-19 by a group of six sick passengers four rows away.

According to my colleague, Emirates adhered to its safety policies. The mask rule was enforced. Flight attendants wore protective clothing. Food and beverage service was reduced. 

Here's the bottom line: I believe we can now safely say that as far as crowded indoor spaces go, HEPA filter-equipped aircraft offer more protection from virus transmission than most other environments, possibly even a lot more.

But for an airline to assert that the chance of transmission is "almost nonexistent" is irresponsible. 


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