Risk-free travel is just a myth. No travel is completely risk-free. But reliable studies have pointed to low incidence of inflight Covid-19 transmission, dispelling theories that flight cabins are highly unsafe for travel during the pandemic.
Since the start of 2020 there have been only 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), according to the global body of airlines – the International Air Transport Association.
Over the same period some 1.2bn, passengers have travelled, IATA data show.
“We think these figures are extremely reassuring. Furthermore, the vast majority of published cases occurred before the wearing of face coverings inflight became widespread,” said Dr David Powell, IATA’s medical advisor.
Recently, Qatar Airways reported “extremely low numbers” of Covid-19 cases on board its aircraft after operating more than 4.6mn “passenger flown sectors” and over 33bn “revenue passenger kilometres” on more than 37,000 Covid-19-free flights across the globe since February.
New insight into why the numbers are so low has come from the joint publication by Airbus, Boeing and Embraer of separate computational fluid dynamics (CFD) research conducted by each manufacturer in their aircraft.
While methodologies differed slightly, each detailed simulation confirmed that aircraft airflow systems do control the movement of particles in the cabin, limiting the spread of viruses.
Qatar Airways Group chief executive HE Akbar al-Baker said: “These latest statistics are a clear indication that, with the adoption of the right measures such as meticulous on-board safety, hygiene and social distancing procedures in place at airports, and compliance with the testing and entry requirements of local authorities, air travel does not need to be a source of concern to passengers.”
“Getting on a plane is safer than in a car or getting in an Uber or ride-sharing or any other form of public transportation. We’ve proven that over time," Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian told CNN recently.
Half a year into the coronavirus pandemic, Bastian points to longstanding evidence that you’re more likely to die on the way to the airport than aboard a plane.
Airline executives also highlight sophisticated air filtration systems, enhanced cleaning like electrostatic spraying between flights and face-mask requirements.
Although there is no way to establish an exact tally of possible flight-associated cases, IATA’s outreach to airlines and public health authorities combined with a thorough review of available literature has not yielded any indication that onboard transmission is in any way common or widespread.
Mask-wearing on board was recommended by the association in June and is a common requirement on most airlines since the subsequent publication and implementation of the Takeoff Guidance by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). This guidance adds multiple layers of protection on top of the airflow systems which already ensure a safe cabin environment with very low risks of inflight transmission of disease.
Airlines say masks are a key factor in reducing the spread of the virus, and have banned passengers who refuse to wear them. They require health acknowledgment forms in which passengers must agree to mask requirements and attest they do not have Covid-19 or its symptoms. Carriers also are emphasising their sanitisation of planes and airport areas.
“ICAO’s comprehensive guidance for safe air travel amid the Covid-19 crisis relies on multiple layers of protection, which involve the airports as well as the aircraft. Mask-wearing is one of the most visible. But managed queuing, contactless processing, reduced movement in the cabin, and simplified onboard services are among the multiple measures the aviation industry is taking to keep flying safe. And this is on top of the fact that airflow systems are designed to avoid the spread of disease with high air flow rates and air exchange rates, and highly effective filtration of any recycled air,” said Powell.
That said, many “would-be passengers” remain extremely wary, arguing that packing into a cabin and breathing the same air with dozens or hundreds of other people for hours is unsafe during a pandemic.
However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States says airplane ventilation systems filter and circulate air frequently, so that “viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights."
Aviation earns its reputation on safety with each and every flight. This is not different for flying in the time of Covid-19. A recent IATA study found that 86% of recent travellers felt that the industry’s Covid-19 measures were keeping them safe and were well-implemented.
“There is no single silver-bullet measure that will enable us to live and travel safely in the age of Covid-19. But the combination of measures that are being put in place is reassuring travellers the world over that Covid-19 has not defeated their freedom to fly. Nothing is completely risk-free. But with just 44 published cases of potential inflight Covid-19 transmission among 1.2bn travellers, the risk of contracting the virus on board appears to be in the same category as being struck by lightning,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO.
Detailed computational fluid dynamics research done by aircraft manufacturers (since the Coronavirus outbreak) have clearly demonstrated that combining the aircraft’s existing design features with mask-wearing certainly creates a low-risk environment for Covid-19 transmission.
Pratap John is Business Editor at Gulf Times. Twitter handle: @PratapJohn