So how safe is air travel?

According to experts, the risk of catching coronavirus on a plane is relatively low if the airline is following procedures laid out by public health experts: enforcing mask compliance, spacing out seats and screening for sick passengers.

“If you look at the science across all diseases, you see few outbreaks” on planes,” Allen said. “It’s not the hotbed of infectivity that people think it is.”

Airplane Air Exchanges Quickly

Airlines frequently note that commercial planes are equipped with HEPA filters, the Centers for Disease Control-recommended air filters used in hospital isolation rooms. HEPA filters capture 99.97% of airborne particles and substantially reduce the risk of viral spread. In addition, the air in plane cabins is completely changed over 10 to 12 times per hour, raising the air quality above that of a normal building.

Because of the high air exchange rate, it’s unlikely you’ll catch coronavirus from someone several rows away. However, you could still catch it from someone close by.

“The greatest risk in flight would be if you happen to draw the short straw and sit next to or in front, behind or across the aisle from an infector,” said Richard Corsi of Portland Stand University.

Rigid Mask Requirements

In fact, since airlines have started to require masks, David O. Freedman at the University of Alabama at Birmingham says, scientists have not documented one superspreading event on airlines. “Flights that had significant transmission documented were flights early on in the pandemic.”

All together, these data suggest masks are working – and working well. “There’s encouraging evidence from a number of flights that masking does help greatly, but it would be nice to study it better,” he says. “The circumstantial evidence is, your risk is low on a plane, if there is rigid masking.”

And that last part is key. To keep the risk low on planes, everyone needs to keep their mask on while riding the plane. For these reasons, engineer Linsey Marr at Virginia Tech says, when she flies, she carefully chooses which mask to wear.

“I save my best mask for the plane. It has a couple layers of HEPA filters that remove more than 99% of particles,” she says. “It’s not my everyday mask.”

You can’t really buy N95 masks right now, but if you happen to have one, Marr recommends using it – or even a P100 respirator, which includes a plastic facepiece and particulate filters or cartridges that remove 99.97% of virus particles. “On the plane, you want the best there is,” she reiterates. “But just make sure it fits well, and keep in mind, the mask doesn’t protect your eyes. So you might want to consider wearing a face shield or goggles or some other kind of eye protection.”

Also remember to disinfect surfaces around your seat, such as the armrests, tray tables and seat backs. You can use hand sanitizer or bleach wipes, and try to do it regularly throughout the flight. Avoid touching your face as much as possible, Marr says. And keep chatter to a minimum. When you talk, you can emit 10 times the droplets and aerosols that you do when you’re quiet.

Finally, Freedman says, don’t forget to wear a mask and socially distance throughout the travel process – while traveling to and from the airport, while waiting in the airport and while boarding and exiting the plane.

“To me, one of the scariest parts [of flying] is the disembarkation process,” Freedman says. “Airlines can control people getting onto a plane, but getting off can be chaos because everybody rushes off the plane.”

For this reason, Freedman says, he and his wife aren’t flying this year for Thanksgiving. They’re taking Amtrak instead.

– Noah Y. Kim, Kaiser Health News

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