Study: Risk Of Covid-19 Transmission On Planes ‘Virtually Nonexistent’ For Mask-Wearers

Topline

Passengers wearing masks are at a very low risk of contracting Covid-19 on planes, even during packed flights, according to a recent study from the Department of Defense and United Airlines which offers new insight into the safety of air travel amid the pandemic. 

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Major airlines have said infection rates among flight attendants are lower than among the general … [+] U.S. population.

Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

Key Facts

Announced Thursday, the results of the study showed that the aggressive air filtration and circulation systems on planes lead to the near-immediate dispersal of particles carrying the infection.

Per these results, it would take a minimum of 54 hours of sitting next to someone with Covid-19 to be exposed to an infectious dose. 

Simulating a packed plane, researchers placed mannequins—both with and without masks—around the cabin and released 280 million particles into the air, the amount that would be produced by around 1,000 coughs, to mimic the infection.

“99.99% of those particles left the interior of the aircraft within six minutes,” said United Airlines Chief Communication Officer Josh Earnest at a Politico event announcing the results which concluded that risk when masked is “virtually nonexistent” and signaled  “being on board an aircraft is the safest indoor public space,” in the words of Earnest.

The researchers ran 300 different tests in total, experimenting with different placement of mannequins around the cabins of Boeing 777 and 767 planes, and testing the differences of planes in the sky and on the ground. 

Small Number 

44. That’s the known number of confirmed Covid-19 cases transmitted on airplanes among the 1.2 billion passengers who have traveled this year, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). 

Key Background 

This research is bolstered by another recent study from the IATA which concluded the “risk of contracting the virus on board appears to be in the same category as being struck by lightning,” in the words of CEO and Director General Alexandre de Juniac. Earnest on Thursday stressed that United Airlines, as other airlines said in September, is reporting lower infection rates among its flight attendants than among the general U.S. population. 

Crucial Quote

Though United hopes studies like these will renew confidence in air travel, which was down 70% of August, Earnest acknowledged that it may be a while before business is back to normal. “Even with all this promising information about the safety of air travel and some of the advances that we’re making in terms of implementing a testing regimen, we recognize that we’re not going to be anywhere close to back to normal until we have a vaccine that’s widely distributed and administered,” said Earnest on Thursday. 

Further Reading 

“Research Points to Low Risk for COVID-19 Transmission Inflight” (IATA)

“Delta And United Report Earnings, Stocks And Bonds Show Sorry State Of Airline Industry” (Forbes)

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