The International Air Transport Association demonstrated the low incidence of inflight Covid-19 transmission with updated tally of published cases.Picture: Tstrong20/Pixabay
The International Air Transport Association demonstrated the low incidence of inflight Covid-19 transmission with updated tally of published cases.Picture: Tstrong20/Pixabay

Risk of contracting Covid-19 on board a plane is very low, says IATA

By Travel Reporter Time of article published Oct 12, 2020

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Scared of flying during the pandemic?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) demonstrated the low incidence of inflight Covid-19 transmission with an updated tally of published cases.

The organisation revealed that since the start of 2020 there have been 44 cases of Covid-19 reported where it is believed that transmission is associated with a flight journey, which is inclusive of confirmed, probable and potential cases.

Over the same period, about 1.2 billion passengers have travelled.

Dr David Powell, IATA’s Medical Advisor, 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 travellers, that’s one case for every 27 million travellers. We recognise that this may be an underestimate but even if 90 percent of the cases were unreported, it would be one case for every 2.7 million travellers.

“We think these figures are extremely reassuring. Furthermore, the vast majority of published cases occurred before the wearing of face coverings inflight became widespread,” he said.

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.

Data from the simulations yielded similar results. It found 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.

The addition of mask-wearing amid pandemic concerns adds a further and significant extra layer of protection, which makes being seated near in an aircraft cabin safer than most other indoor environments.

IATA’s data collection, and the results of the separate simulations, align with the low numbers reported in a recently published peer-reviewed study by Freedman and Wilder-Smith in the Journal of Travel Medicine.

Aircraft design characteristics add a further layer of protection contributing to the low incidence of inflight transmission.

These include limited face-to-face interactions as passengers face forward and move about very little, the effect of the seat-back acting as a physical barrier to air movement from one row to another, and the minimisation of the forward-aft flow of air, with a segmented flow design which is directed generally downward from ceiling to floor.

Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO, said there was no single silver-bullet measure that will enable people to live and travel safely in the age of Covid-19.

"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 1.2 billion travellers, the risk of contracting the virus on board appears to be in the same category as being struck by lightning.

“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,” said de Juniac.

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