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Covid-19 Transmission Risk on Airplanes is 1 in 27 Million, Says Research

Photo source: KLM

Since the start of 2020 and among some 1.2 billion airplane passengers, there have been only 44 cases of the coronavirus (Covid-19) reported in which transmission is thought to have been associated with a flight journey, according to research released by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

“The risk of a passenger contracting COVID-19 while onboard appears very low,” said Dr. David Powell, IATA’s Medical Advisor.

According to Dr. Powell, with only 44 identified potential cases of flight-related transmission among 1.2 billion travelers, that is one case for every 27 million travelers.

“We recognize that this may be an underestimate but even if 90 percent of the cases were unreported, it would be one case for every 2.7 million travelers. We think these figures are extremely reassuring,” he said, adding that the vast majority of published cases occurred before the wearing of face coverings inflight became widespread.

New insight into why the numbers are so low has come from a recent joint publication by Airbus, Boeing and Embraer of separate computational fluid dynamics (CFD) research conducted by each manufacturer in their aircraft.

While methodologies differed slightly, each detailed simulation confirmed that aircraft airflow systems do control the movement of particles in the cabin, limiting the spread of viruses.

Data from the simulations yielded similar results:

– 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.

According to IATA, although there is no way to establish an exact tally of possible flight-associated cases, the organization’s outreach to airlines and public health authorities combined with a thorough review of available literature has not yielded any indication that onboard transmission is in any way common or widespread.

“There is no single silver-bullet measure that will enable us to live and travel safely in the age of Covid-19. But the combination of measures that are being put in place is reassuring travelers the world over that Covid-19 has not defeated their freedom to fly. Nothing is completely risk-free,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.

A recent IATA study found that 86 percent of recent travelers felt that the industry’s Covid-19 measures were keeping them safe and were well-implemented.

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