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Is Flying During COVID-19 Actually Low-Risk? Experts Question New Study

Young woman wearing mask on airplane.

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Key Takeaways

  • A new report from the Department of Defense, Boeing, and United Airlines claims the risk for catching COVID-19 while flying is low thanks to airplane ventilation and filtration systems, especially when other safety precautions (such as masking) are followed.
  • The report was based on a model that some experts warn doesn't take into account human factors.
  • You can protect yourself by only flying when necessary, and following safety precautions when flying like wearing a mask and handwashing.

The risk of contracting COVID-19 on an airline flight is low, according to a new report. Officials from the Department of Defense, Boeing, and United Airlines led the research, which was released by, the United States Transportation Command (U.S. Transcom).

The team created a "breathing" mannequin to simulate an infected passenger. They then looked at how far droplets can travel through the cabin, using sensors to track particles. The report assumed other passengers wore surgical masks and used Boeing 767 and 777 wide planes as the models.

According to the report, it would take 54 hours on a plane for people wearing masks to be at risk for getting the virus. This is largely due to ventilation systems and filters on planes. In the approximately 40 seats near the simulated infected patient, 99.99% of aerosols were removed from the cabin within six minutes. In fact, the report claims airplanes removed particulates 15 times faster than a home, and five to six times faster than hospital operating or patient isolation rooms.

While experts associated with the research say the model and data produced in the report are robust, others say the study didn't account for many human factors associated with flying, like removing masks for eating and drinking. The report comes as some medical experts warn against flying for the holidays and as airlines—including United Airlines—report big losses due to the pandemic.

In 2020, airlines have lost approximately $419 billion in revenue due to COVID-19, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

What This Means For You

While scientists still aren't sure about the reliability of data on COVID-19 risks on airplanes, you should consider whether not travel is absolutely necessary right now. If you must travel, wear your mask throughout the entire flight and make sure to wash your hands.

Is Air Travel Risk Actually Low?

The IATA supported the U.S. Transcom report. According to the trade association's own report citing research on COVID-19 and air travel, there have been 44 cases of COVID-19 thought to be linked to flying. The organization said the numbers align with other studies.

"The U.S. Transcom research provides further evidence that the risk of infection on board an aircraft appears to be very low, and certainly lower than many other indoor environments,” Alexandre de Juniac, director general and CEO of IATA, said in a statement.

“We recognize that this may be an underestimate, but even if 90% of the cases were unreported, it would be one case for every 2.7 million travelers. We think these figures are extremely reassuring,” David Powell, IATA’s medical advisor, said in a statement. “Furthermore, the vast majority of published cases occurred before the wearing of face coverings inflight became widespread."

But David Freedman, MD, a travel medicine and infectious diseases specialist at University of Alabama Birmingham, who conducted one of the studies cited by IATA, debunked this claim. He told Reuters this assertion was based on “bad math.” He said the U.S. Transcom report didn’t take into account if others on the plane were asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

“1.2 billion passengers during 2020 is not a fair denominator because hardly anybody was tested. How do you know how many people really got infected?” he told Reuters. “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

Conflicts of Interest

Kris M. Belland, DO, an aviation medicine specialist with the Aerospace Medical Association, tells Verywell the U.S. Transcom study was “well done and reputable.”

“I do not think the [U.S. Transcom] study is misleading. The study does its best to relate relative risk to things that are familiar to our flying public,” Belland says, who previously served as a chief medical officer for commercial airlines and has experience working with authorities on infectious diseases.

“Commercial airlines travel is never risk-free, especially with COVID-19, but it is pretty safe, and getting safer the more we understand and mitigate known risk factors,” he says.

Kunjana Mavunda, MD

Airlines are certainly trying to woo back customers. The consumer has to be careful.

— Kunjana Mavunda, MD

Kunjana Mavunda, MD, a pulmonologist from Florida who also runs an international travel clinic, tells Verywell she would like to see more research from sources outside of the air travel industry. She says the U.S. Transcom study itself isn’t misleading, but how it’s being marketed by those who want to boost flying is misleading.

"Nothing is risk-free," an IATA spokesperson tells Verywell. "Individuals should make their own decisions on whether they are comfortable with traveling by air."

Travel Is Still Risky

Even with the release of this new report, some experts still advise against setting foot on a plane unless absolutely necessary.

“The study was done in a controlled manner,” Mavunda says. “It did not take into account people walking around the plane, or waiting at the bathrooms. The risk level will increase when people take the mask off to eat, and also when people walk around the plane and touch things.”

Statistics do show that in the past few months when people have started to travel, there have been very few cases of flight-acquired COVID infections, Mavunda says. However, she points out that travel is very limited and passengers have been wearing masks, social distancing, and washing their hands.

“Airlines are certainly trying to woo back customers,” Mavunda says, adding that COVID-19 cases are increasing in most communities. “The consumer has to be careful."

When we fly, we lose control of the environment we will be in, whether it is at the airport or the airplane. While these reports examine the probability of catching the virus on an airplane, they do not take into account TSA lines or crowded airport facilities. People have to think very carefully about the risks they are willing to take when they fly, Mavunda says.

“Whoever says that it is safe to be in tightly-packed spaces if most people wear masks is not looking at the whole picture," she says. "If the COVID-19 positivity rates in a population that is tightly packed are low, meaning less than 1%, that may be true. However, when a community has a high positivity rate, like 50 states in the U.S. have, this is not true.”

How to Stay Safe on a Flight

The ventilation systems in modern airplanes are designed to reduce the risk of infectious disease transmission through high air exchanges, top-to-bottom airflow, and filters, Timothy F. Brewer, MD, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at University of California, Los Angeles, tells Verywell.

“Combining these systems with other protective measures, such as not traveling when sick or symptomatic, wearing masks, washing hands, and disinfecting cabins between flights should make the risk of flying low for most people,” he says.

But that also depends on whether or not people follow recommended prevention measures, Brewer says. “Removing one’s mask for eating or speaking could potentially increase the risk of COVID-19 spread, not decrease it,” he says.

Brewer says the government may be trying to help the ailing airline industry with the U.S. Transcom report, but that doesn’t mean the data is misleading or wrong.

Though the risk of contracting COVID-19 from air travel is low, people thinking of air travel should still follow recommended practices and not travel if symptomatic or sick, Brewer says. 

“Try to fly at times when planes are likely to be less crowded and when there is at least one empty seat between you and the nearest passenger,” he says.

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Article Sources
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  1. TRANSCOM/AMC. Commercial Aircraft Cabin Aerosol Dispersion Tests. August 2020.

  2. IATA. Research Points to Low Risk for COVID-19 Transmission Inflight. Oct. 8, 2020. 

  3. Frost L. 'Bad math': Airlines' COVID safety analysis challenged by expert. Reuters. Oct. 19, 2020.