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Is the COVID-19 risk on airplanes really that low? Here's what experts say

By Hugo Martin, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

With the demand for air travel still in a slump, the airline industry is promoting studies that suggest the risk of contracting the coronavirus while flying is low.

Although healthcare experts say the air filtration system in most commercial planes helps reduce the risk of being infected, they point out that the studies have limitations and the results are not all definitive.

Delta Air Lines and two of the world's largest airline-industry trade groups have promoted the recent studies as they seek to ease the fear of flying during a pandemic that has killed more than a million people worldwide.

Question: Why is it important to airlines to promote the safety of flying?

Answer: The volume of passengers flying on U.S.-based airlines is down 63% compared with the same time last year, with domestic travel dropping 61% and international flying down 77%. As a result, U.S.-based carriers are losing more than $200 million a day combined, according to Airlines for America, a trade group for the U.S. airline industry.

Q: What are the studies they're promoting?


A: The most prominent study was conducted and sponsored by United Airlines, airplane manufacturer Boeing and the U.S. Department of Defense. To see how the coronavirus might spread in a commercial jet, the study measured a fluorescent aerosol spray that was emitted from a mannequin placed in various seats in two types of Boeing jets.

The mannequin was moved throughout the cabins of the planes, with sensors installed in surrounding seats to measure how far the aerosol spray traveled. More than 300 tests were conducted, with variables such as having the mannequin emit aerosol at different strengths to replicate breathing, speaking or coughing. Tests were performed with and without the mannequin wearing a mask.

The study concluded that the "aerosol exposure risk is minimal even during long duration flights," with the highest risk coming to those sitting in the same row as the mannequin.

Q: Do healthcare experts agree?


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