It's a more interesting question after reading the research just out from Harvard scientists, which concluded that air travel "is as safe as or substantially safer than the routine activities people undertake during these times.''
The research focused on the ventilation systems within airplanes and found that even though air is recirculated back into the cabin, it goes through high-quality air filters first. These systems refresh the air every two to three minutes, and the study found that virus droplets from one passenger are unlikely to infect another because of a downward direction of airflow.
At the same time, a big part of the message in the reporting on the study emphasizes that sitting in your seat on the airplane is only part of the travel journey, and that while the ventilation system is effective, risks are still there across various phases of the journey. So taking a layered approach through the process is the best practice for minimizing the risk of infection. While new measures for disinfecting planes have been put into place and are having a positive impact, there still needs to be strict face mask enforcement and social distancing during boarding and deplaning. With those factors in place, they can combine to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission on a plane to below the level found at grocery stores or restaurants.
But to balance the reporting — and not to mention that we seem to be in another surge of infection that looks to be the worst yet — there are also examples of travel where through contract tracing it was determined infections were spread via in-flight transmission. In a report from Irish public health officials, 13 of 49 passengers on a 7.5-hour flight to Dublin, including a child, tested positive for COVID-19, and another 46 in contact with them in Ireland became infected. Four were hospitalized, one in the ICU. But there are very few examples like this that have been reported since back in March.
The authors from Harvard did say that there is room for other improvements to minimize the risk, including even better social distancing when boarding and exiting, and keeping airplane ventilation systems on when the plane is parked at the gate. In deciding whether to take that next flight, there are a few considerations for travelers to think through, like their own personal health, conditions at their destinations, and a host of other factors. And the biggest piece of advice: Wear a mask religiously! While the risks do seem to be fairly low, they are not zero.
Where do you sit as it relates to your comfort level with jumping on a plane?
Here are some tips from Harvard scientists for those willing to take the risk:
- Be aware of COVID-19 symptoms and don’t fly when positive or after exposure to someone positive.
- Wear masks, surgical if possible, at all times during travel, except to briefly eat or drink. The key word is "briefly."
- Don't eat or drink at the same time as your seatmates if you don't know them.
- Mask shaming, done politely, is OK. Ask a fellow passenger to put their mask on or alert a flight attendant if someone is being lax.
- Keep your distance from other passengers when boarding and when exiting, even if others aren't.
- Sanitize tray tables, arm rests and other high-touch areas.
- Wash or sanitize your hands and avoid touching your face while seated and during and after bathroom use.
Given that air travel is a significant element within talent mobility, and business travel, let's continue hoping for an effective vaccine as soon as possible. At the same time, FitchRatings put forth their expectations on how long this airline and travel recovery will take across the world. Traffic is not expected to return to 2019 levels globally until 2024, with the pace of recovery diverging across regions.
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The "layered approach, with ventilation gate-to-gate, reduces the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission onboard aircraft below that of other routine activities during the pandemic, such as grocery shopping or eating out," the study said.