Chances of catching Covid-19 on a plane are slimmer than you think, scientists say

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(CNN) – Sitting wedged between a number of strangers on a plane can seem like a risky position during these uncertain times.But according to some experts who point to the very rare documented cases of in-flight transmission, the chances of catching Covid-19 on board a flight are actually relatively slim.

The fear of flying during the pandemic has dramatically reduced global air traffic, which has also been restricted due to border closures. If new scientific claims are confirmed, the perceived increased risk of boarding an aircraft could be unfounded.

In one case, around 328 passengers and crew were tested for the coronavirus after learning that a March 31 flight from the United States to Taiwan was carrying 12 passengers who were symptomatic at the time. However, all other passengers tested negative, as did the crew.

And while there have certainly been cases of infected passengers transmitting the virus to an airplane crew or travel companions in recent months, transmission rates have been low.

A study recently published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open found evidence of the possible spread of the coronavirus during a four-hour flight from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt in March.

According to researchers at the Institute for Medical Virology at Goethe University in Frankfurt, two passengers developed infections after traveling with a group of tourists who had come into contact with an infected hotel manager and were also infected.

The two who could have been infected were seated in the back of the plane, directly across the aisle of seven passengers who had unknowingly caught the virus.

An earlier flight from the UK to Vietnam on March 2, in which a passenger reportedly spread the virus to around 14 other passengers, as well as a crew member, is so far considered to be the only on-board transmission known to several people.

One explanation for the apparently low level of risk is that the air in modern aircraft cabins is replaced with new fresh air every two to three minutes, and most airplanes are equipped with air filters designed to trap 99.99% of particulates.

Meanwhile, various new protocols have been implemented, such as face masks for passengers and crew, which are mandatory for most airlines, temperature checks, as well as more intensive cleaning of the cabin. cabin and limited movement in the cabin during the flight.

Arnold Barnett, professor of statistics at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, attempted to quantify the odds of getting infected with the virus aboard a short flight in a recent study that looked at the benefits of the politics of the empty middle seat. .

Low risk of transmission

The chances of a passenger catching Covid-19 on a flight and dying from the virus are less than half a million.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

According to its findings, based on short-haul flights in the United States on planes configured with three seats on either side of the aisle, such as the Airbus 320 and Boeing 737 – and assuming everyone is wearing a mask – the risk of catching tThe virus on a full flight is only 1 in 4,300. The odds drop to 1 in 7,700 if the middle seat is vacant.

“Most things are more dangerous now than they were before Covid, and aviation is no exception,” he told CNN Travel.

“But three things have to go wrong for you to get infected (on a flight). There must be a Covid-19 patient on board and they must be contagious, ”he said. “If there is such a person on your flight, assuming they are wearing a mask, they should not be preventing transmission.

“They also need to be close enough that you can suffer from transmission. “

Barnett says he took all of those probabilities into account before determining an overall risk of transmission.

The odds will be even lower for flights made to regions of the globe with few cases, as well as for long-haul flights, because “the proximity ratio is a factor with the existence of proximity,” he says. .

Barnett goes on to say that there is not much difference in risk between passengers sitting in an aisle seat on a full flight and those sitting in the window seat.

However, the chances of getting infected are slightly higher for those in the hallway seats, as they simply have more people around them.

“You are endangered by the people sitting next to you in the same row,” he says. “And to a lesser extent, the people in the back row and in the front row.

“Statistically, the window seat is a bit safer than the center seat or the aisle seat on a full plane. But that’s not a big difference. “

Fewer leaflets

Many major airports around the world are still almost empty due to the impact of the pandemic.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Barnett’s research is based on the assumption that flights operate at full volume, but it should be noted that many still operate at reduced capacity.

Although the U.S. Transportation Security Administration reported that traffic passing through airport security checkpoints exceeded 800,000 for the first time since the pandemic in early August, it was still a decrease of 31% compared to the figures for the same day in 2019.

The professor is a strong supporter of the middle seat vacuum policy, which has been adopted by Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines. and JetBlue Airways.

However, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) describes this approach as “economically unfeasible” for airlines.

“Screening, masks and masks are among the many layers of measures that we recommend,” said Alexandre de Juniac, managing director and CEO of IATA in a statement released last month. “Leaving the middle seat empty, however, is not. “

De Juniac goes on to suggest that an effective Covid-19 test that can be administered on a large scale and immunity passports could also be included as temporary biosecurity measures if they become available.

“We need to come up with a solution that gives passengers the confidence to fly and that keeps the cost of the flight affordable,” he adds. “One without the other will have no lasting benefit. “

Although different airlines have slightly different measures in place, general guidelines for passengers are to wear a mask, wash their hands regularly, and check in online to minimize the risk of in-flight transmission.

Reinforced protection

  A crew member instructs a passenger aboard flight LA ​​2212 between Lima and Trujillo, Peru, July 15

Some experts have suggested that passengers should wear a shield as well as a mask for better protection.

Raul Sifuentes / Getty Images

However, Barnett recommends travelers go further by carrying a shield.

“There are various things that can be done to take the risk, which is small, and make it even smaller,” he says.

“Because it (a shield) covers your eyes, nose and mouth, it reduces the risk of other people infecting you.

“Science is changing every day, but my understanding is that if you wear a mask it dramatically reduces the risk of you infecting others. But it doesn’t protect you so much, while a shield will protect you.

“If I was flying now, I would definitely carry a shield. “

This view is somewhat supported by a new research report from the UK University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University, which concludes that the use of plastic barriers called personal protective shields will significantly reduce the risk of Covid-19 contamination, provided they are worn with face masks.

It recommends that aircraft seats be fitted with Personal Protective Windows (PPW), transparent plastic barriers designed by the UK aircraft interior and exterior specialist RAS Completions, which can be attached to the back and sides of any seat on an airplane.

“Our recommendation is that airlines should make face masks mandatory, and if used in conjunction with PPW and regular cleaning of the PPW, the risk of Covid-19 contamination is minimized,” says the co- author of the report, Dr. Cathal Cummins, assistant. professor at Heriot-Watt University, also in Edinburgh.

“If all three measures are mandatory, combined with good personal hygiene, airlines can increase passenger protection. “

High risk groups

In July, Qatar Airways became the first airline to require passengers to wear a face shield in addition to a face mask or face mask.

Shields, which are provided by the carrier, are mandatory for economy class passengers unless they eat or drink, while those traveling in business class can wear them “at their own discretion, as they benefit from more. ‘space and privacy’.

However, all passengers must wear them when boarding and disembarking.

Philippine Airlines followed suit earlier this month, so it seems likely that other carriers will choose to apply this rule in the future.

Prior to boarding their flight, customers traveling with the Middle Eastern carrier will receive protective kits – including face shields, hand sanitizer, surgical mask and disposable gloves.

While it is clear that such precautions can greatly limit the danger of infection, which is already relatively slim, for some travelers any level of risk is just too risky, especially those in high risk groups.

Barnett points out that it will take the development of a vaccine or a change in the care available to Covid-19 patients for these anxious travelers to feel comfortable flying again, regardless of the number of safety measures put in place.

“I miss it a bit,” he admits. “I think flying is beautiful and under normal circumstances overly safe.

“But these are not normal circumstances. “

CNN Health’s Naomi Thomas contributed to this story

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