Contracting COVID-19 on a Plane Unlikely, Study Says – Live and Let’s Fly

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A new study finds that airplanes are not the vaunted cesspool that they were perceived to be. Also, I admit I was wrong about middle seats.

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Chances of Contracting COVID-19 On Plane “Slim”

A new study (not yet reviewed by peers because it was just released) finds that chances are slim to none that a COVID-19 negative person will contract the disease from being on an airplane. Faye Flam of Bloomberg wrote an excellent piece last week on the findings.

“Arnold Barnett, a professor of management science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been trying to quantify the odds of catching Covid-19 from flying. He’s factored in a bunch of variables, including the odds of being seated near someone in the infectious stage of the disease, and the odds that the protection of masks (now required on most flights) will fail. He’s accounted for the way air is constantly renewed in airplane cabins, which experts say makes it very unlikely you’ll contract the disease from people who aren’t in your immediate vicinity – your row, or, to a lesser extent, the person across the aisle, the people ahead of you or the people behind you.” – Flam, Bloomberg. August 5th, 2020

Barnett showed that failures would have to take place to achieve even these numbers. Masks would have to fail (presumably on both the contagious and the victim), that the flight was shoulder to shoulder fully booked (significantly doubtful) and that you happen to sit next to them. Not impossible, but no one in Vegas is betting those odds.

Comparative Odds

It’s important to note that before COVID-19 we all took health risks when flying and some of us got sick. Each member of my family came back from Disney sick each and every visit despite efforts to mitigate with handwashing, sanitizer, and avoiding handrails. It happens. But COVID-19 is different so it’s fair to want to have an understanding of just how risky a flight is compared with other activities.

    t

  • 1:4300 – Chance of contracting COVID-19 on a two-hour, packed flight
  • t

  • 1:7700 – Chance of contracting COVID-19 on the same flight with an open middle seat
  • t

  • 1:400,000-600,000 – Chance of dying from contracting on a plane
  • t

  • 1:400,000-600,000 – Chance of dying when contracting anywhere on the ground
  • t

  • 1:9 – Chance of males developing prostate cancer
  • t

  • 1:8 – Chance of females developing breast cancer
  • t

  • 1:103 – Chance of dying in a car crash
  • t

  • 1:556 – Chance of dying as a pedestrian

In fact, airplanes may be a safer place to be (when concerned with recycled air) than the hospital:

“Bromage says that the air exchange system in planes is better than in hospitals, with the air in the cabin being completely replaced 30 times every hour.”

That supports comments I made in the past, that there were fewer people in close proximity on my last flight than when visiting a Wal-Mart. If you’re worried about the cleaning crews efficiency on airplane gate turns, think about the last time the handle at the gas station was sanitized yet no one is saying “don’t get gas.”

The study also did not state the effect of the immune population nor of those with antibodies to the virus, both of which would have made the odds even longer. However, it also did not take into account the rest of the journey to and from the airport including TSA interactions.

Can We All Go Flying Again, Now?

Another UMass professor flies every week but is approaching travel in the same way they approach everything else – carefully.

“University of Massachusetts biology professor Erin Bromage says he is flying every week, as he advises federal, state and district courts on how to reopen while minimizing risks. Whereas many experts are taking a zero-tolerance for risk approach, he’s trying to find a middle ground – and helping others do it in a rational way.

It wasn’t just this one study and a colleague from UMass that supports this information,

“Real-world data bodes well for flying, too. Australia has been using contact tracing to investigate Covid transmission on hundreds of flights, and has found that while infected people got on planes, nobody got infected on a plane. Worldwide, there have been a couple of individual transmissions possibly linked to flights, but no superspreading-type events.”

Should we all take off the masks and get on planes? No. The data is clear about this. However, even on American and United flights where the middle seat is not guaranteed to be open (as it is on JetBlue, Southwest and Delta Air Lines for example) load factors suggest it’s highly likely that if you want an open middle seat you’ll get one.

Considering an airplane with 180 seats in coach, carriers that block the middle seat may have up to 120 seats taken. However, the reason why I stated that those bold moves were “mostly a marketing stunt” is because that implies a 66.67% load factor – something none of the airlines is currently reporting. Families still sit together which reduces the need for a guaranteed open middle seat, and because those people have been associated with each other prior to the flight, they do not add to the risk of contraction.

The virus is real and we should treat it as such. Our experience in this process has reminded (and for some, educated) us all on good sanitation habits. The people being smirked at for wiping down a tray table are being asked for tips instead. But traveling is not akin to murdering someone’s grandmother as one commenter accused me of doing merely by stepping foot on a plane (for the avoidance of doubt, on that trip I was one of six passengers in a 52 seat cabin with no more than two people in a row of 13 seats.)

I Was Wrong

Interested in a half-apology? Here’s one:

“I was wrong when I said that an open middle seat was only marginally better than a fully packed plane, in fact, it reduces the chances of contracting the disease by almost half.”

However, my assumption of just how likely one was to contract the disease on a plane anyway was highly flawed and it’s far less likely than previously thought. To be the one person that contracts COVID-19 on an airplane you’d likely have to have flown 24 flights since February without factoring in immunity. Many flight attendants would have loved to have been that busy during the period.

Conclusion

The odds are indeed slim that passengers will contract COVID-19 on an airplane. While the study is not yet peer-reviewed, data from Australia and other governments support the claim. The virus is real and we should take precautions to protect ourselves and others, but some of these precautions should have been taken anyway regardless of the virus to avoid getting sick (wash your hands!) If we all board jets right now, yes more people will get sick in a nominal fashion, but given low load factors, mandatory use of masks, and the limited use of air travel due to closed air markets – chances are very, very low. And the rates to fly couldn’t be better.

What do you think? Assuming the study referenced and supporting study from Australia are true, will you be getting back on an airplane? Does this study change your thought process?