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Research reveals that the risk of transmission of COVID-19 on board airplanes is low

A study carried out by several aircraft manufacturers highlights the low incidence of transmission of COVID-19 while on board.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) published an updated record on the number of COVID-19 infections while on board an airplane that demonstrates the low incidence of transmission of the coronavirus during flight.

Since the beginning of 2020, there have been 44 cases of COVID-19 associated with air travel (confirmed, probable and potential cases). During the same period, some 1.2 billion passengers have flown.

“The risk of a passenger getting COVID-19 on board seems very low. The 44 potential cases associated with air travel among some 1.2 billion passengers represent just one case for every 27 million travelers. We are aware that the data may be underestimated, but even if there were 90% of unreported cases, it would still be one case for every 2.7 million travelers. In both cases, the figures are extremely reassuring. Furthermore, most of the reported cases occurred before imposing the use of a mask on board,” said David Powell, IATA Medical Advisor.

Details of the research revealed

For their part, Airbus, Boeing and Embraer jointly published the results of investigations based on computational fluid dynamics (CFD) in their aircraft that explain these low figures. While the methodology differs slightly, detailed simulation confirms that aircraft ventilation systems control the movement of particles in the cabin, limiting the spread of viruses. Investigation of each manufacturer separately yielded similar results:

  • Aircraft ventilation systems, High Efficiency Filters (HEF), seat back as a natural barrier, top-down air circulation, and the high rate of air renewal in itself reduces the risk of disease transmission on board in a normal scenario.

  • The mandatory use of a mask adds an additional and significant level of protection so that despite the proximity factor in the cabin, the risk of contagion is lower compared to other interior spaces.

Focus on various prevention measures

In June, IATA recommended the use of a face mask while on board, and it is a requirement of most airlines since the publication and implementation of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Takeoff guidelines. These guidelines add new levels of protection to aircraft air filtering systems, which in themselves create a safe environment with a very low risk of disease transmission.

The design of the aircraft also adds other protective measures that contribute drastically to reduce contagion on board. To highlight:

  • The limitation of movement of the passengers and the configuration of the seats facing forward, that avoids face to face interaction.

  • The back of the seats, which acts as a natural barrier that prevents air from circulating between rows.

  • Maximum forward and backward airflow reduction, with a segmented flow design that is generally directed downward, from ceiling to floor.

  • The high rate of fresh air entering the cabin. The air is recycled between 20 and 30 times an hour in most airplanes, compared to the two or three times an hour that this happens in offices or 10 or 15 times an hour, in schools.

  • The use of HEPA filters, which trap bacteria and viruses with an efficiency of 99.9%, ensures that the cabin ventilation system is not a “drain” of microbes.

The effort of these investigations highlights the cooperation and commitment to safety of all those involved in air travel, and provides evidence of the safety that exists in the cabin of an aircraft. For more information, please visit the IATA webpage, here.