Risk of COVID-19 exposure on passenger jet very low, according to US study

The risk of exposure to the coronavirus on flights is very low, according to a US Department of Defence study.

This will be seen as a positive sign for the airline industry as it tries to rebound from the pandemic‘s crushing effect on travel.

When a seated passenger is wearing a mask, an average 0.003% of air particles within the breathing zone around a person’s head are infectious – even when every seat is occupied, the study suggests.

Image: A United Airlines passenger jet taxis at Newark Liberty International Airport. File pic

The testing assumed there was only one infected person on the plane and it did not simulate the effects of passenger movement around the cabin.

Experts conducted the study on a United Airlines Boeing 777 and 767 aircraft and claim it showed that masks helped minimise exposure to infection when someone coughed, even in neighbouring seats.

It found about 99.99% of particles were filtered out of the cabin within six minutes due to fast air circulation, downward air ventilation and the filtration systems on the aircraft.

And it estimated that a passenger would need to fly 54 hours on a plane with someone who has coronavirus to receive an infectious dose.

More from Covid-19

“These results … mean your chances of COVID exposure on a United aircraft are nearly non-existent, even if your flight is full,” said United Airlines chief customer officer Toby Enqvist.

The study was led and funded by Transportation Command, which operates Patriot Express flights that use commercial planes like United’s for members of the military and their families.

It took place over six months and involved 300 tests during 38 hours of flight time and 45 hours of ground testing.

Heathrow airport

Image: Aviation has been one of the hardest-hit sectors during the pandemic, with demand falling substantially

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said it had identified only 44 flight-related COVID-19 cases since the beginning of 2020, versus some 1.2 billion passengers who have travelled during that time.

IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac said “nothing is completely risk-free” but the published cases of potential inflight COVID-19 transmission show that “the risk of contracting the virus on board appears to be in the same category as being struck by lightning”.

The pandemic has hit the aviation industry hard – and in the US, the number of trips taken by air is still down 65% on where it was a year ago.