Strict enforcement of mask-wearing, strong ventilation, and disinfection of high-touch surfaces combine to make flying during the pandemic safer than other common activities such as going to the grocery store or eating inside a restaurant, according to a study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
The study finds that although passengers are often unable to follow social distancing guidelines while on a flight, the “frequent exchange of air and HEPA filters on planes” remove over 99 percent of particles containing COVID-19 from the cabin air, which significantly reduce the risk of virus transmission on a plane.
However, flyers should still wear their masks at all times, maintain social distancing whenever possible (such as while boarding and deplaning), and follow good hand hygiene practices.
Before you rush to book that plane ticket, there’s one important thing to note about this study—it was sponsored by the airline and airport industries.
Another recent study by the Department of Defense (DOD) had similar findings. This (not peer-reviewed) study set up face mask-wearing dummies on an empty United Airlines plane and simulated an infected person coughing. The virus particles were quickly filtered out through the ventilation system, and the study found that the risk of transmission to other flyers was very low.
However, there have been documented cases of COVID-19 infections on flights, including one case where a passenger contracted the virus despite wearing an N95 mask the entire journey (except when using the restroom).
A flight to Dublin this summer was also linked to an outbreak of 13 cases among passengers, even though the flight was only 20 percent full and all flyers were reportedly wearing masks.
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