Air travelers are highly unlikely to contract COVID-19 if their flight requires passengers to test negative, according to a new study conducted by Delta Air Lines, Mayo Clinic and the Georgia Department of Health.
The peer-reviewed study found that out of nearly 10,000 passengers that tested negative 72 hours before flying between the U.S. and Italy, only five tested positive for COVID-19. That 0.05 percent rate of infection on international flights from December 2020 to May 2021 is far lower than the average community transmission rate of 1.1 percent over the same period.
The data demonstrates that international travel can be reopened safely with proper testing, masking and cleaning protocols, said Dr. Henry Ting, Delta’s chief health officer. Many countries have thus far crafted their international travel rules around simulation models.
“This is the first real study. This is not a model, this is not mathematics or physics. These are real passengers who flew from the U.S. to Italy during the height of the third COVID-19 surge,” Ting said.
“There’s so many other activities you could do like going to the grocery store, church or a restaurant where your risk of infection is way higher than flying,” he added.
The study’s release comes as the travel industry pushes the Biden administration to lift a ban on nonessential travel from Europe instituted in the early days of the pandemic. White House officials have said that they are formulating a plan to reopen international travel but have not yet implemented it.
Ting said that he shared the data with the White House and the National Security Council and received a “very receptive” response.
European countries this week tightened their restrictions on U.S. travelers following a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the highly transmissible delta variant. Spain, Denmark and Belgium will require proof of vaccination for U.S. travelers, while Sweden and Norway are blocking all U.S. travelers from entering their borders in most cases, regardless of vaccination status.
Domestic air travel rebounded this summer, but delta variant fears have caused flight bookings to dip. International air travel, inhibited by continued restrictions, remains 55 percent below 2019 levels, according to industry trade group Airlines for America.
Airlines have enacted stricter rules to combat the virus. Last month, Delta Air Lines required employees to undergo weekly testing or get vaccinated and hit unvaccinated employees with a $200 health care surcharge. United Airlines announced that all of its employees must get the shot.