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Low Risk of Inflight COVID-19 Transmission, Say Planemakers

By Alicia Arizpe | Fri, 10/09/2020 - 12:16

As the COVID-19 crisis continues unabated and with the winter holiday season approaching, many people interested in travelling for the holidays seem to be having second thoughts due to fear of exposure to COVID-19. While the judge is still out on exactly how risky it is to travel by airplane, aerospace giants Airbus, Boeing and Embraer suggest that the risk of inflight transmission is low after testing their aircraft’s airflow systems.

From the start of the outbreak, a total of 44 cases of potential inflight transmission of COVID-19 have been identified across the world. While this number may give some people pause, it is significantly low once accounting for the more than 1 billion people who have traveled by aircraft during that time. “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 travelers, that is one case for every 27 million travelers,” said David Powell, Medical Advisor of IATA.

Determining the exact number of passengers that might have gotten COVID-19 inflight is a challenging task. A recent air traveler diagnosed with COVID-19 might have been exposed shortly before going to the airport, in-route to the airport, at the airport, during the flight or soon after arrival at their destination, making it harder for researchers to determine the exact point of contagion.

To increase passenger confidence, aerospace OEMs Airbus, Boeing and Embraer have tested the airflow systems of their respective aircraft to track the movement of air particles in the cabins. Through computational fluid dynamics (CFD) tests, planemakers observed that airflow systems reduce the risk of transmission. “After multiple, highly-detailed simulations using the most accurate scientific methods available, we have concrete data that reveals the aircraft cabin offers a much safer environment than indoor public spaces,” said Bruno Fargeon, Project Lead of the Airbus Keep Trust in Air Travel Initiative.

Moreover, aircraft incorporate other measures that contribute to purifying the air and reducing risks, including High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, the downward flow of air and high rates of air exchange. “Airplanes have always used the most advanced air filter in the world, the HEPA filter, which filters 99.9 percent of particles suspended in the air. Moreover, an airplane’s certification process requires measuring the number of air particles, oxygenation in the different areas of the airplane and the number of pathogens,” said Felipe Sandoval, President of FEMIA.

Airlines have also implemented numerous other measures to reduce transmission risks, such as the use of face masks at all times during flights. The 44 inflight transmission cases previously mentioned occurred before airlines implemented mandatory face coverings.

Alicia Arizpe Alicia Arizpe Senior Writer