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Aviation: How safe is flying in the age of Coronavirus?

Flying During COVID-19 Photo: WSJ

Alexander Davis | ConsumerConnect

In view of the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and attendant negative socio-economic consequences in the industry, the aviation sector says modern aircraft ventilation should mitigate the risk of this sort of spread.

How safe is it to fly? This remains a troubling question.

The hopes of airlines for a rebound in travel after an initial collapse ran up against a resurgence of the coronavirus around the world in late 2020, Bloomberg report stated.

Would-be passengers continue to worry about being stuck in a cabin for an extended time with possibly infectious strangers. The evidence shows the risks aren’t negligible.

  1. How many fliers have caught the virus?

It’s impossible to know. The International Air Transport Association, the trade group for the world’s airlines, counted 44 confirmed or suspected instances of in-flight transmission this year as of October 8.

With 1.2 billion passengers traveling in that period, the group said the risk appeared to be “very low.”

However, its count is not comprehensive, and independent researchers caution that any tally of known cases is likely to reflect the difficulty establishing the spread of a virus on a plane.

  1. Why is it hard to establish?

It involves knowing a passenger was infected, interviewing and testing as many as hundreds of fellow fliers, then, ideally, analysing the genomes of any additional viruses that turn up to check for connections to the first passenger’s infection.

In the U.S. alone, health officials know of 1,600 flights in the first eight months of the year carrying someone who may have had the virus.

They count 10,900 people who were possibly within a six-foot range of those people, but they don’t have complete contact information for many of them.

  1. What can make flying risky?

As with other forms of public transport, the risk comes from close proximity to others and surfaces touched by many people.

Those infected with the novel Coronavirus emit virus-containing droplets from their noses and mouths that can be transferred directly to someone nearby or picked up from a contaminated surface and conveyed to the mouth, nose or eyes.

Studies of other viruses that spread the same way have found that the greatest risk on a flight comes from sitting within two rows of a contagious person for longer than eight hours.

The airport can also be a risk as travelers wait in queues, check in for flights, visit food vendors and use bathrooms.

  1. What about airborne transmission?

The Coronavirus also can be transmitted via smaller particles that people emit from their noses and mouths.

Known as aerosols, they can float through the air and be inhaled. The airline industry says modern aircraft ventilation should mitigate the risk of this sort of spread.

The air on a plane is generally a 50-50 mix of sterile outside air and recirculated cabin air that’s been filtered.

Airbus SE and Boeing Co., the world’s two biggest planemakers, say that since the 1980s they have been fitting their aircraft with HEPA filters, which capture particles as small as the virus.

Some older aircraft, however, use less efficient filters. Cabin airflow goes from ceiling to floor rather than front to back and is split into sections, which should limit the movement of particles along the length of the plane.

Even so, modeling suggests this airflow can be influenced by factors such as seat and cabin layout and how full the aircraft is.

Also, these ventilation systems may not be fully operational when planes are parked at the gate; an influenza outbreak in 1979 resulted from passengers being kept on board a grounded aircraft with the ventilation turned off.

Some airlines say they are now keeping the systems turned on until everyone exits the aircraft.

  1. What else can mitigate risks?

Airlines are now telling customers to wear face masks throughout their journeys, which can reduce risks.

The airline trade group notes that most published cases of inflight transmission occurred before this happened.

Still, in many instances the rule is not strictly enforced, and mask-wearers have become infected.

For example, researchers concluded that a man on a flight from Singapore to China on January 21, 2020, who let his mask slip while chatting to his wife and son, was probably infected by fellow fliers.

Airlines are also cleaning aircraft more frequently and thoroughly, going cashless, and using online check-in and automated bag drops.

Some are no longer serving food and beverages, and passengers are being asked not to queue for the toilet. In the US, only Delta Air Lines Inc. promises to always leave space between passengers, though other carriers are limiting the numbers on each flight, when possible.

European airlines have largely been reluctant to commit to leaving middle seats empty, saying that the science is limited on the effectiveness of the practice and that it would make flights too costly to run.

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