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Air Transport Association Reports Low Covid-19 Transmission Risk when Flying

Manufacturer studies into the risk of coronavirus on board airplanes has shown “low incidence” of in-flight Covid-19 transmission

Published on October 12, 2020

Passengers wearing masks on a plane. Photo: Delta Airlines

As discussion continues over the re-opening of international travel routes by air, IATA, the International Air Transport Association, has published details of manufacturer studies which suggest that the risk of in-flight transmission of coronavirus could be low.

Citing information sourced from manufacturers and airlines, IATA report that "Since the start of 2020 there have been 44 cases of COVID-19 reported in which transmission is thought to have been associated with a flight journey (inclusive of confirmed, probable and potential cases). Over the same period some 1.2 billion passengers have traveled."

In July, an IATA survey found that there was a high level of concern among airline passengers about the transmission of coronavirus whilst on board a plane, with 65% of respondents saying they were concerned about sitting "next to someone who might be infected" on board a flight.

Processing the latest data, however, IATA's Medical Advisor, Dr David Powell, said that "The risk of a passenger contracting COVID-19 while onboard appears very low. With only 44 identified potential cases of flight-related transmission among 1.2 billion travelers, that’s one case for every 27 million travelers. We recognize that this may be an underestimate but even if 90% of the cases were un-reported, it would be one case for every 2.7 million travelers. We think these figures are extremely reassuring. Furthermore, the vast majority of published cases occurred before the wearing of face coverings inflight became widespread".

Using CFD (computational fluid dynamics), airplane manufacturers Boeing, Airbus and Embraer yielded similar results when studying air flow in-flight. Their studies suggested that "aircraft airflow systems, High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, the natural barrier of the seatback, the downward flow of air, and high rates of air exchange efficiently reduce the risk of disease transmission on board in normal times", and also ound that "the addition of mask-wearing amid pandemic concerns adds a further and significant extra layer of protection, which makes being seated in close proximity in an aircraft cabin safer than most other indoor environments."

With continued talk of a re-opening of US-UK routes, studies like this one could be deployed to call for fewer regulations on air travel. Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO, commented that "The detailed computational fluid dynamics research of the aircraft manufacturers demonstrates that combining the aircraft’s existing design features with mask-wearing creates a low-risk environment for COVID-19 transmission. As always, airlines, manufacturers and every entity involved in aviation will be guided by science and global best practices to keep flying safe for passengers and crew".

For full details on the manufacturer studies, go to www.iata.org/en/pressroom/pr/2020-09-08-012/.

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