‘Heightened fear of Covid-19 spread on airplanes unfounded’

‘Heightened fear of Covid-19 spread on airplanes unfounded’

The fears of infected airline passengers spreading the coronavirus infection to everyone else on the aircraft are unfounded and the risk of contracting the disease on an airplane is low, according to scientists.

While there have certainly been cases of infected passengers passing the virus on to an airplane's crew or fellow travellers, the transmission rates are low, they pointed out.

A study published in medical journal JAMA Network Open found evidence of the possible spread of coronavirus during a four-hour flight from Tel Aviv to Frankfurt in March. Two passengers developed infections after flying with a group of tourists who had come into contact with an infected person and contracted the disease, according to researchers from the Institute for Medical Virology at Goethe University in Frankfurt.

An earlier flight from the UK to Vietnam on March 2, in which one passenger seemingly spread the virus to around 14 other passengers, as well as a crew member, is so far believed to be the only known on-board transmission to multiple people. One explanation for the apparently low risk level is that the air in modern aircraft cabins is replaced with new fresh air every two to three minutes, and most planes are fitted with air filters designed to trap 99.99% of particles.

Additionally, various precautionary measures have been implemented such as face-coverings for both passengers and crew, which is mandatory on most airlines, temperature screenings, as well as more intensive cabin cleaning and limited movement in the cabin during flight.

A recent study by Arnold Barnett, a professor of statistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, looked at the benefits of the empty middle seat policy.

According to his findings, based on short haul flights in the US on aircraft configured with three seats on either side of the aisle, such as the Airbus 320 and the Boeing 737 -- and assuming everyone is wearing a mask -- the risk of catching the virus on a full flight is just 1 in 4,300. Those odds fall to 1 in 7,700 if the middle seat is vacant. These figures are specifically for two-hour flights within the United States, the country with highest cases of Covid-19.

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