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.