A report by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) indicates extremely few incidents of COVID-19 in-flight infections. The IATA - a trade association representing about 290 airlines around the world - says that 1.2 billion passengers have traveled by plane since the beginning of the year, and there have been 44 cases of COVID-19 reported in which transmission is thought to have been associated with a flight journey.

“That’s one case for every 27 million travelers," says Dr David Powell, IATA’s medical advisor. "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 in-flight became widespread.”

A pilot wears a facemask as he arrives at Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport
Mask-wearing is a common requirement on most airlines © Adrian Dennis / AFP / Getty Images

This comes from the publication of research conducted by Airbus, Boeing and Embraer. They each provided detailed simulation reports that confirm that aircraft airflow systems control the movement of particles in the cabin, limiting the spread of viruses. They say that aircraft airflow systems, 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.

Air is exchanged 20-30 times per hour on board most aircraft, which compares very favorably with the average office space (average two - three times per hour) or schools (average 10-15 times per hour). The reports suggest that 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. Mask-wearing on board was recommended by IATA in June and is a common requirement on most airlines.

“Managed queuing, contactless processing, reduced movement in the cabin, and simplified onboard services are among the multiple measures the aviation industry is taking to keep flying safe," says Powell. "And this is on top of the fact that airflow systems are designed to avoid the spread of disease with high air flow rates and air exchange rates, and highly effective filtration of any recycled air." Further information on the IATA report can be found here.

Ask LP: are airlines doing enough to keep us safe from COVID-19?

However, many government authorities, like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), still advise against travel. According to the CDC: “travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.” 

All travelers should weigh the risks of air travel during the pandemic, check relevant government and airline policies and take necessary precautions when traveling. 

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