Coronavirus

The Chances of Catching Coronavirus on an Airplane Are Lower Than You Think

But please try not touch that tray table.
August 25, 2020, 8:42am
flying in pandemic
Photo courtesy of Camila Perez / Unsplash

You might be planning on travelling across the country to meet your partner who you haven’t seen for over six months. Or you might be planning to fly back home to the familiarity of your parents’ house. Or you might just be desperately craving a break from the chaos that is life right now. But despite travel resuming in most parts of the world, this million-dollar question keeps cropping up: How safe is it to fly now, and what are the chances of contracting the virus aboard the airplane? 

According to some experts who have pointed out the very few documented cases of in-flight transmission, the chances are surprisingly but also thankfully relatively slim. 

Arnold Barnett, a professor of statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, tried to quantify the odds of getting infected with the virus while onboard a short flight in a recent study that looked at the benefits of the empty middle seat policy. And the statistics point out that the transmission rates are low.

According to his findings, which are based on short-haul flights in the U.S., on aircraft configured with three seats on either side of the aisle—and assuming everyone is wearing a mask—the risk of catching the virus on a full flight is just 1 in 4,300. Those odds fall to 1 in 7,700 if the middle seat is vacant. 

One explanation for the apparently low-risk level is that the air in modern aircraft cabins is replaced with new fresh air every two to three minutes, and most planes are fitted with air filters designed to trap 99.99 percent of particles. Meanwhile, various new protocols have been implemented by both airlines and airports—face-coverings for both passengers and crew, temperature screenings, as well as more intensive cabin cleaning and limited movement in the cabin during the flight. Airlines in India have opted out of serving meals for the entirety of this pandemic as well to reduce human contact.

"Three things have to go wrong for you to get infected (on a flight). There has to be a COVID-19 patient on board and they have to be contagious," Barnett told CNN. "If there is such a person on your flight, assuming they are wearing a mask, it has to fail to prevent the transmission. They also have to be close enough that there's a danger you could suffer from the transmission."

These figures are for two-hour flights within the United States, the country currently with the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world. But a country like India—whose coronavirus cases growth rate rivals that of the U.S.—could be expected to have about the same results. The odds will be lower for flights taken in parts of the globe with fewer cases, but higher for long-haul flights as "the ratio of proximity is a factor along with the existence of proximity”. 

Lin Chen, an infectious disease doctor and president of the International Society of Travel Medicine, agrees. She told NPR that a review of the available data, though varied, shows that the overall rate of infection from air travel is "very, very low." She points to one January flight from China to Canada, when a passenger with a symptomatic case of COVID-19 did not infect any of the 350 passengers on board, according to a brief report by Canadian researchers. But if passenger volume swells and airlines add back flights, Chen says we may expect to see more cases as more exposures occur and especially as access to testing improves. 

The chances of becoming infected, albeit low, are ever so slightly higher for those in aisle seats because they simply have more people around them. You're endangered by the people sitting next to you in the same row—and to a lesser extent, the people in the row behind and the row ahead. Statistically, Barnett says, the window seat is a little safer than the middle seat or the aisle seat on a plane that's full. But it's not a big difference.

It is advisable to avoid tray tables, though. They are the dirtiest place on a plane, according to the studies of Charles Gerba, a professor of virology at the University of Arizona—he's detected influenza virus, norovirus, and parainfluenza virus, which causes the common cold, on them. "The reason that the trays get so contaminated is because that's where your hands are,” Gerba told Insider. “You're contaminating it all the time by picking it up. So what we generally recommend is you bring a hand sanitizer with you, try to avoid touching your face, or wear a mask, and I think the risks are minimized." 

That is not to say that there haven’t been cases of infected passengers passing the virus to the crew or fellow passengers. But if you comply with guidelines and take the required safety measures—wearing a mask, washing hands regularly, and checking-in online—the risk would be minimal. 

You should be careful about airports, though, if you are travelling. Check in online and carry limited baggage with you to avoid the long, crowded queues at airports. And research has pointed out that often the gates and jetways at airports don't have ventilation running while people board and disembark, which needs to change in order to prevent the spread of airborne viral particles infectious people might be shedding.

In the meanwhile, airports are also looking to implement various other long-term measures to ensure travellers feel safe coming aboard. Those include effective COVID-19 testing that can be administered at scale and immunity passports that could also be included as temporary biosecurity measures if they become available. 

And if you’re worried still, invest in a shield for the flight. It covers your eyes, nose, and mouth and lessens the risk of others infecting you. Jets of air can sometimes leak from the sides and back as well as the front of face masks. And shields could help in protecting you from that leak. 

But to top it all off, while airplanes don’t necessarily act as a high-risk zone for the spread of the virus, travelling from one place to another definitely increases the spread of the virus.

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