This study may make you fear flying (again) during COVID-19

The weather is cooling down and the holidays are getting closer and you may be wondering, is it safe to book that flight home?

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that air travel can put you at risk through close contact with other people and frequently touched surfaces. However, they also stated that viruses and germs don’t spread easily on flights, due to the way air is circulated and filtered on planes.

With the right precautions, flying should be a fairly safe experience — right? New studies may be suggesting just the opposite, revealing a super spreading event that took place on an international flight back in March.

Researchers from Vietnam’s National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology looked at a Coronavirus outbreak that took place on a 10-hour flight from London to Vietnam.

According to the study, a 27-year-old woman showing symptoms of COVID-19 was onboard the flight and diagnosed 5 days later. Since she was the only passenger on the flight showing symptoms of COVID-19, researchers determined that the woman infected 12 other people on the flight, likely through aerosol or droplet transmission.

“We found no strong evidence supporting alternative transmission scenarios,” they concluded. “[I]n-flight transmission that probably originated from one symptomatic passenger caused a large cluster of cases during [the] long flight.”

Dr. Henry Wu, a senior physician at the Emory University School of Medicine, said he was shocked by how many people were infected by one passenger in a flight.

“These studies are important because they add a layer of evidence that previous studies and reports have not had,” Wu said.

A similar incident occurred on a flight from Israel to Germany, where seven passengers were unknowingly infected with coronavirus after being exposed to it by their hotel manager. During the five-hour flight, researchers determined that the passengers transmitted the virus to two other people on the plane.

In this case, researchers said that the airflow in the cabin likely reduced the transmission rate, which is why only two other passengers were infected.

Researchers also noted, in both cases, that the events took place in early March when airlines did not require passengers to wear face coverings on flights.

“[I]t could be speculated that the rate may have been reduced further had the passengers worn masks,” they wrote.

Both Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of UC San Francisco’s Department of Medicine and Dr. Wu agreed, saying they have yet to see any evidence of an airplane outbreak when masks were required.

It’s also important to note that the length of the flights could have played a part in the spread of the virus. Wu noted that the risk would have been a tenth as much for a one hour flight as it was for a 10-hour flight.

“It’s clear if people were not wearing masks and were in a metal tube for 12 hours the possibility of spread is there,” Wachter concluded. “It seems like catching it on an airline is a very, very low probability event, but probably not a zero probability event.”

The bottom line: safety measures make a big difference here. Michael Carome, director of health research at Public Citizen, said taking extra precautions while traveling is important.

“There have been people who were infectious who traveled, and that means, indeed, there is a real measurable risk of exposure on airliners,” he said. “[W]earing masks or face coverings is a simple, easy public health measure to take.”

The good news is that all airlines in America now require masks and/or face coverings to be worn by passengers on flights. And that’s not all: they also sanitize the cabins regularly, require health declaration signatures from passengers, and equip planes with hospital-grade air filtration systems.

The one thing many are lacking, however, is proper social distancing protocols. Many health professionals have advocated for leaving the middle seats empty to allow for extra space between passengers. However, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), doing this would result in a huge loss financially that airlines can’t afford right now.

In August, the IATA released a report saying, “alternate seat blocking does not achieve the required physical distancing” to be effective, and achieving a three- to six-foot distance between passengers would be “uneconomical.”

While it’s true that the CDC recommends a minimum of six feet of distance between people, previous studies have shown that leaving the middle seat empty actually cuts the risk of infection almost in half.

Regardless of all this, the overall consensus seems to be that hopping on a flight with the right safety measures in place is still safer than most other public activities.

Microbiologist and Pathologist Joshua Santarpia confirmed this.

“If I were to pick between going into a crowded bar or getting on the airplane, I’d get on the plane any day,” he said.

Katherine Estep, the spokesperson for Airlines for America, also confirmed that there are still no documented cases of coronavirus transmission on American flights.

“Flying remains a safe and healthy experience,” she said.