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Research Finds Flying Is Low-Risk

November 17, 2020

There seems to be a common misconception among the public that air travel is a high-risk activity when it comes to COVID-19. However, new research from the Aviation Public Health Initiative—a project of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health—indicates otherwise.

Phase one of its ongoing research on strategies and practices to reduce the public health risks of flying during the COVID-19 pandemic are outlined in their “Gate-to-Gate” report.

With its focus on considerations aboard the aircraft, the report found that, through a layered approach to risk mitigation, the scientific evidence shows a low risk of COVID-19 transmission on an aircraft. The report provides evidence that it’s possible to leverage technology and modify behavior to allow some near-normal activity while reducing the risks of disease transmission during the COVID-19 crisis.

Analysis from the report shows that ventilation of air on aircraft reduces the possibility of exposure to COVID-19, lower than other common settings, such as a grocery store or indoor restaurant. This effectively counters the proximity travelers are subject to during flights. Because of the frequent exchange of air and HEPA filters on planes, over 99% of the particles containing the virus are removed from cabin air.

In addition to the air filtration systems, synergistic layers include:

  • Universal wearing of facemasks by passengers and crew throughout the journey.
  • Distancing protocols and provision of strong ventilation during boarding and deplaning.
  • Disinfection of high-touch aircraft surfaces to remove contamination.
  • Passenger attestations that they do not have COVID-19 related symptoms and commitment to adhere to airline mask policy.

“Our team found that, together with their high-performing ventilation systems, the actions that the airlines put in place—including mandatory use of face masks—significantly reduce risks of viral transmission aboard an airplane,” said Leonard Marcus, Co-Director of APHI. “With comprehensive adherence to these preventive measures by airlines and passengers, air travel, along with other sectors of society, can responsibly return to some level of normal activity as we await development of an effective vaccine.”

Recommendations for passengers include wearing masks at all times except for very short periods to eat or drink, maintaining social distancing during boarding and deplaning, providing personal health attestations, and maintaining hand hygiene.

The second phase of the report will focus on the curb-to-curb airport environment, which will examine testing, the indoor air environment of airports, and other measures to reduce risk of disease transmission.

To view phase one of the report, click here.

Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for Groups Today.