Study Finds Getting COVID-19 on an Airplane is Unlikely

safe travel covid-19

Airplanes and airports have previously been identified as potential areas where there’s a high risk of COVID-19 spreading, as there are many people in a relatively small space and the travelers have been exposed to others who could possibly be infected with the coronavirus.

However, a fresh study by the US Department of Defense (DoD) contradicts the claim that there’s a heightened risk of coronavirus transmission on commercial planes.

Specifically, the study found that the risk of contracting COVID-19 by air (not by touching a surface infected with coronavirus and then touching your face) is reduced by 99.7 percent due to HEPA-filtered recirculation, high air exchange rates and downward ventilation on commercial planes.

The study explored how COVID-19 can spread in the cabin of a plane from one infected passenger to anyone else on the plane, and various organizations and agencies were involved in the study, including Boeing, United Airlines, National Strategic Research Institute, the University of Nebraska Medical Center and various research companies.

In particular, the study looked at how coronavirus spreads on Boeing 767s and 777s, and it consisted of researching releasing fluorescent tracer aerosols to replicate how droplets infected with COVID-19 move in the aforementioned environment.

Researchers designated over 11,500 “breathing zones” and released the tracer aerosols from almost 50 different seats to see how the different scenarios play out.

Commenting on the study’s findings, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said it is representative of how infectious diseases move about and are transmitted on any plan despite the study just looking at two models. 

“The reality is those tests are indicative of what happens on every airplane. An aircraft is just a remarkably safe environment,” he said.

Kirby added that passengers should ensure that the overhead vents above their seat are fully open to maximize air circulation and thus keep the risk of coronavirus being spread on the plane to a minimum.  

The findings of the study support what many airlines have long argued; that there’s a lower risk of coronavirus being transmitted in the cabin of an airplane than in most other settings, as the air is continuously filtered and exchanged.

“The 767 and 777 both removed particulate 15 times faster than a home … and five to six times faster than recommended design specifications for modern hospital operating or patient isolation rooms,” the study noted. 

However, airports remain a high risk area, as tens of thousands of people pass through them every day from various different destinations. Having said that, the social distancing and sanitization measures put in place at airports are helping minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Despite many countries currently experiencing a so-called second wave of coronavirus cases, the travel and tourism industry is starting to pick up again, though some people will understandably still choose to exercise caution and avoid traveling unless absolutely necessary. 

A Quick Summary

  • Following the sharp rise of COVID-19 cases in Europe and the US back in March, airplanes and airports were quickly identified as high-risk areas for contracting the virus.
  • However, a new study conducted by the Department of Defense indicates that the risk of getting infected with the virus onboard a commercial plane is much lower than most other settings.
  • This is because the air in the cabin of a modern commercial airplane is continuously filtered and exchanged.
  • This greatly reduces the chances of droplets containing COVID-19 being released from an infected person and reaching another passenger.
  • However, it should be stressed that airports are still considered to be quite high risk, as people who have visited countries all over the world pass through them on a daily basis.