The Risk of Getting COVID on Planes “Virtually Nonexistent”

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"Sukhoi SuperJet 100 Cabin" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by SuperJet International

According to a new study by the Department of Defense, the risk of contracting the coronavirus aboard an airplane is “virtually nonexistent,” as long as passengers wear masks.

The study which was conducted by the Department of Defense together with United Airlines, ran 200 tests in over six months using mannequins aboard a United Airlines plane. The mannequin that was used in the study was equipped with an aerosol generator. This allowed technicians to mimic the breathing and coughing of humans. Each test released 180 million particles, an amount equivalent to the particles produced by thousands of coughs.


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After creating these particles in the environment of the airplane they studied the way how it will move inside the cabin with the mannequin using a mask and not using a mask. In the test, they assumed the cabin is full. Technicians then added sensors in galleys, seats, and at the bridge in order to represent other passengers on the plane.

Josh Earnest of United Airlines Chief Communications Officer told ABC News, “99.99% of those particles left the interior of the aircraft within six minutes. It indicates that being on board an aircraft is the safest indoor public space, because of the unique configuration inside an aircraft that includes aggressive ventilation, lots of airflows.”

CEOs of major U.S. airlines in late September said that their employees were reporting lower rates of coronavirus infections compared to the general public.

In a Politico event, CEO Scott Kirby of United Airlines said, “At United, but also at our large competitors, our flight attendants have lower COVID infection rates than the general population, which is one of the multiple data points that speak to the safety on board airplanes.”

“N558UA – Boeing 757-222 – United Airlines” (CC BY 2.0) by Colin Brown Photography

The research did by the Department of Defense with United Airlines, is bolstered by another recent study from the International Air Transport Association (IATA). They concluded that “the risk of contracting the virus on board appears to be in the same category as being struck by lightning.”

John Earnest, United Airlines representative, told ABC News that 99.99% of those particles left the interior of the aircraft within six minutes. He added, “It indicates that being on board an aircraft is the safest indoor public space, because of the unique configuration inside an aircraft that includes aggressive ventilation, lots of airflows.”

ABC News also reported that there is only a 0.003% chance that the particles from an infected COVID-19 masked patient can infiltrate an adjoining flier’s breathing space, citing the study carried in partnership with United Airlines.

The trade group also found that last September, there were only 44 published cases of potential onboard transmission among 1.2 billion travelers, and most of these cases occurred in the early days of the COVID outbreak when masks were still not mandated.

At the moment air travel is down to around 70% compared to last year but recovery is already seen. Earnest told the network, “We’re seeing recovery, but we have a long way to go.”

The airline’s representative also stated that despite the promising information about the safety of air transport and the advances that were happening in terms of completing a testing regimen, the airlines recognize that it is still far from going back to normal. Not until the vaccine will be distributed and administered.