Story at a glance

  • Research commissioned by United Airlines and the Department of Defense reveals limited COVID-19 transmission in aircraft hangers.
  • The CDC currently advises all passengers wear masks aboard planes, which is underscored by the study.

Ahead of holiday travel, airlines are still reeling from coronavirus-induced slowdowns, resulting in billions of losses in revenue and thousands of layoffs. 

One study published Thursday documenting the risk of COVID-19 exposure while aboard airplanes is providing a more optimistic outlook for the struggling industry. 

Researchers found that there is a “virtually non-existent” risk of someone becoming exposed to COVID-19 when masks are worn aboard flights. In fact, there is only a 0.003 percent chance particles can pass one passenger to another's breathing space when sitting beside them while masks are worn. 


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Commissioned by United Airlines and the U.S. Department of Defense, the study used tracer aerosols to mimic COVID-19 aerosol particles that could be expelled from an infected passenger inside the cabin of a standard commercial aircraft, in this case, Boeing 777-200 and 767-300 airframes at 100 percent seating capacity. 

These aerosols were released into the cabin 300 times in the vicinity of more than 40 aerosol particle sensors known as Instantaneous Biological Analyzer and Collectors (IBAC) to simulate how COVID-19 particles may spread and infect passengers. The IBACs were strategically located to best represent where a given passenger’s breathing zone may be.

Results from the study showed little transmission in the air cabin, mainly due to the air flow and filtration efforts installed. The calculations used revealed approximately zero aerosol-acquired COVID-19 infections from a 12-hour flight, on the condition that passengers consistently wear masks throughout the flight.

For a passenger to become susceptible to a COVID-19 infection while inflight, assuming viral particles are being disseminated by another nearby passenger, the passenger would have to be aboard the flight for at least 54 hours.

The study concludes by stating low transmission in airplanes relied on HEPA-filtration recirculation systems and high air-exchange rates, which is more robust than in other indoor environments. Researchers also encouraged boarding passengers in small cohorts to adhere to social distancing guidelines.

While scientists at the Department of Defense involved in the study said the results were “encouraging,” according to The Washington Post, the study did not look at the risk of contracting a COVID-19 infection when larger viral droplets disseminate from activities like talking or eating.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommend that airline passengers and crew wear masks, stay at least 6 feet apart, wash hands or sanitize frequently, and avoid touching orifices like the eyes, nose or mouth. 


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Published on Oct 15, 2020