Threat of Contracting COVID-19 on an Airline is Low

The global COVID-19 pandemic has led to fears that infected airline passengers could spread the disease to everybody else on the aircraft. These fears are largely unfounded, and disease transmission on a commercial airliner is relatively rare. Although the risk of contracting COVID-19 on a commercial airliner is low, the COVID-19 pandemic is having an enormous impact on the global airline industry.

COVID-19 Transmission on Airliners

Travelers are unlikely to contract COVID-19 on commercial airliners. The World Health Organization (WHO) has previously stated that “there is very little risk of any communicable disease being transmitted on board an aircraft,” due in large part to the sophisticated air circulation systems on airliners. Airliners recycle air at a higher rate than most public spaces do, and they send all recycled air through high-efficiency particulate absorbing (HEPA) filters, which are effective at preventing the recirculation of particles containing viruses such as COVID-19. The air circulation through these filters means that an infected passenger is unlikely to spread the disease through the entire cabin.

The WHO has found, however, that passengers seated within 2-3 rows of an infected passenger are at higher risk of contracting the disease, especially on longer flights. These passengers could contract the disease from the infected passenger’s coughs or sneezes, by touching the infected passenger, or by touching something the infected passenger has recently touched. As passengers in aircraft tend to stay in the same location through almost all of the flight, passengers elsewhere on the aircraft are unlikely to come into direct contact with the infected passenger. An infected flight attendant could potentially spread COVID-19 to more passengers, but there have been relatively few cases of a flight attendants contracting the disease.

The risk of contracting COVID-19 is likely higher in airports than on airliners. Air filtering and general hygiene standards in airports are less consistent than those onboard airliners, and travelers will likely come into close contact with more people and touch more surfaces in the airport than on the aircraft itself. Travelers are also more likely to encounter individuals from countries with major COVID-19 outbreaks in a major international airport than on an individual aircraft, especially if they are flying between two places that do not have major COVID-19 outbreaks.

Risk Mitigation

The most effective methods for avoiding COVID-19 transmission on a commercial airliner are the same basic hygiene practices that are effective on the ground. Individuals should regularly wash their hands with soap and water or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available. Hand washing is especially important before and after eating. Individuals should also limit the number of times they touch their face, eyes, and mouth. Health officials do not recommend that healthy individuals wear surgical masks, as they are ineffective at preventing the wearer from contracting COVID-19. 

Travelers can also reduce the threat of exposure to COVID-19 during air travel by minimizing the time they spend in airports and taking precautions when they are at the airport. Effective methods for reducing time spent in airports include only packing carry-on bags, checking in online, obtaining boarding passes prior to arrival at the airport, and flying during off-peak hours. Once in the airport, travelers can take additional precautions along with the basic hygiene practices outlined above. Such precautions include staying away from airport lounges, shops, and restaurants; walking further to pass through security at a less-crowded checkpoint; waiting for flights at a nearby empty gate instead of a crowded gate area; and not crowding around the gate prior to boarding.

Some airlines have taken additional steps to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission in flight. Some carriers have reduced or eliminated hot meal services or have stopped handing out hot towels to passengers before meals. Some airlines have also eliminated in-flight duty-free sales and stopped handing out newspapers and magazines. Most airlines have also increased requirements for aircraft cleaning and disinfection between flights.

Several governments have ordered airlines to suspend flights from areas with major COVID-19 outbreaks or banned all international arriving flights in an attempt to prevent the virus from being brought into their respective countries. Early evidence suggests that these measures are not effective at keeping COVID-19 out of a country. Italy, for example, was among the first and most aggressive countries to cut off air travel from China and surrounding areas while the COVID-19 outbreak was still largely limited to Wuhan, China. The virus nonetheless spread to Italy, and the country is now one of the most-affected countries in the world. COVID-19’s wide geographic spread and contagious nature mean that further targeted flight bans are unlikely to protect a country against the virus.

Impact on Airlines

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has had an enormous impact on airlines, forcing them to suspend or reduce frequency on thousands of routes and threatening the financial stability of numerous carriers. These impacts are likely to worsen through the rest of 2020, and some airlines will likely go out of business as a direct result of the pandemic.

Airlines have suspended or cut back service on thousands of routes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While public health concerns or government mandates have triggered some of the suspensions, financial issues have been the main motivation behind most of the cutbacks. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a sharp drop in demand for air travel, meaning that many flights are no longer economical for carriers to operate. Some airlines have completely suspended operations, calculating that they will lose less money by shutting down than by trying to operate any of their flights.

The enormous drop in airline travel during the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening the financial viability of many airlines, and some will likely go out of business during the outbreak. The carriers most likely to go out of business are those that were already in financial trouble before the pandemic. British carrier Flybe (BE) cited the COVID-19 outbreak as a reason for its collapse in early March 2020, although the carrier was already in deep financial trouble prior to the pandemic. Two US regional carriers, Trans States Airlines (AX) and Compass Airlines (CP), also plan to permanently cease operations in the near future; the companies have the same parent company. Trans States had already planned to shut down at the end of 2020 – the COVID-19 pandemic merely moved up the airline’s closing date – while Compass lost its contract with key partner Delta Airlines (DL) in late 2019. Additional airline shutdowns are likely as the pandemic continues.

This article was first published in WorldAware’s Airline Security Newsletter.

WorldAware’s Airline Security Newsletter

The Airline Security Newsletter, keeps you appraised of key safety-related developments regarding the world’s fleet of commercial and charter airlines. Each edition provides you with a range of detailed information and analysis of air-travel-related issues and incidents, including any changes in WorldAware’s airline safety rating system.

Learn about WorldAware’s Airline Security Newsletter.

About WorldAware

WorldAware provides intelligence-driven, integrated risk management solutions that enable multinational organizations to operate globally with confidence. WorldAware’s end-to-end tailored solutions integrate world-class threat intelligence, innovative technology, and response services to help organizations mitigate risk and protect their employees, assets, and reputation.

Maxwell Leitschuh

Max is an Airline Safety Analyst in WorldAware’s Executive Decision Support (XDS) team. He is the lead author of WorldAware’s quarterly Airline Safety Newsletter. Max joined WorldAware in 2010 after working at the Library of Congress and in the US Senate. He holds a degree in International History from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

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