Though airlines are nowhere near returning to full pre-pandemic capacity, there still are flights crisscrossing the country and even heading overseas. But many would-be passengers are still wary about spending extended periods in such close quarters as an airplane cabin, fearing they might contract COVID-19. As it turns out, there might be little cause for worry—at least according to the airlines.
"At United, but also at our large competitors, our flight attendants have lower COVID infection rates than the general population, which is one of multiple data points that speaks to the safety on board airplanes," United CEO Scott Kirby said at a Politico forum last week. Delta's CEO, Ed Bastian, and American Airlines president, Robert Isom, made similar claims.
"If the experience of flying was not safe, you'd expect our people to get sick. We track the health of our people. Our people are meaningfully less infected than the general population," said Bastian at the SAP Concur forum last week.
While these claims seem to bode well for the aviation industry at large, they do need to be taken with a grain of salt: there have been no peer-reviewed studies about COVID-19 contraction rates among airline workers.
That said, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) union released data indicating that 1,000 flight attendants have tested positive for the virus, out of a total of 122,000 U.S. flight attendants: that is a 0.8 percent positivity rate. The general population of the United States has about a two percent positivity rate. It should be noted, however, that it's not likely that all 122,000 flight attendants have been up in the air lately, given the reduction in flights plus employee buyouts. But it's still a promising statistic.
"I think all of that is evidence that the policies that have been put in place and the practices that have been put in place have helped to really decrease the risk of spreading coronavirus and in a lot of ways really control it in air travel better than on almost any other place in our communities," AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson said at the Politico forum.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) supports Nelson's claim. "We believe that the data is telling us that the risk of onboard transmission of the virus is low when compared with other public indoor environments, such as trains, buses, restaurants, and workplaces," IATA said in a statement on Saturday. "There are published examples which indicate a much higher risk in these environments. Aircraft benefit from very high air exchange rates and HEPA filters, which filter more than 99.99 percent of all particles, including viruses."
Thus between the air filtration systems, stringent cleaning policies, and the mandate that everyone aboard an aircraft must wear a mask, it does seem that the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 on a plane is low. But it's not zero.
On Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published two reports indicating that COVID-19 spread on flights, one from Boston to Hong Kong, and one from London to Hanoi, Vietnam. These flights, however, took place in March—long before mask usage became a requirement for passengers and crew.
So while there's a chance you could contract COVID-19 on a flight, passengers who follow protocol—including wearing a mask and avoiding touching their face—don't seem to be at a significantly elevated risk of falling ill. But that in no way means we should let our guard down. If you decide to fly any time soon, be sure to follow all safety guidelines both in the air and on the ground to continue to prevent the spread of the virus.