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Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have seen flying as a potentially risky activity. However, according to a new report presented by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the risk of infection when flying may actually be relatively low.
The report claims that since the beginning of 2020, only 44 cases of COVID-19 have been registered where the infection has been transmitted during a flight. This includes both confirmed and possible transmission of infections. The total number of travellers in the same period is 1.2 billion.
– “The risk of a passenger contracting COVID-19 while onboard appears very low. 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 un-reported, it would be one case for every 2.7 million travelers. We think these figures are extremely reassuring. Furthermore, the vast majority of published cases occurred before the wearing of face coverings inflight became widespread,” said Dr. David Powell, IATA’s Medical Advisor.
Safer than most indoor environments
The reasons why the infection rates might be relatively low can be found in a report from the aircraft manufacturers – Airbus, Boeing and Embraer – researching computational fluid dynamics (CFD) on board their respective aircraft. There are some variations between the aircraft manufacturers as regards the research methods used, but all data shows that the air systems on board control the movement of particles in the cabin, limiting the spread of viruses.
The key factors at work seem to be as follows:
- “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 on board in normal times.
- The addition of mask-wearing amid pandemic concerns adds a further and significant extra layer of protection, which makes being seated in close proximity in an aircraft cabin safer than most other indoor environments.”
Given that IATA represents the travel industry, it would be wise to treat its specific claims with a bit of a healthy scepticism. However, data from airlines and public health authorities around the world does suggest that COVID-19 infection on board aircraft is not widespread.