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What airlines (and you) can do to lessen the spread of COVID-19 mid-flight

Plane travel, especially when all the passengers are vaccinated, is still considered safe when passengers and crew take appropriate precautions such as wearing a mask. However, scientists say it could be safer. 




If all passengers wear masks on a 12 hour flight the average infection probability can be reduced by 73 per cent with high-efficiency masks and 32 per cent with low-efficiency masks, a study, published in the Journal of Travel Medicine, found. 


According to the study, compared with staying fully masked for the whole flight, chances of viral transmission go up by 59 per cent during a one-hour meal service.


But the International Air Transport Association’s medical advisor Dr David Powell told the Wall Street Journal that, “[o]n longer flights, it is not feasible to avoid eating and drinking”. 


“It needs to be remembered that the in-flight phase is not likely to be one of the highest-risk phases of the journey,” he added.


The solution suggested by the researchers is to stagger meal times so that a smaller number of passengers are unmasked at a time. 


But an American Airlines spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that meals are delivered in a single service on longer flights to reduce touch points between passengers and crew and to speed up unmasked meal time.



Michael Schultz, an engineer at the University of Dresden’s Institute of Logistics and Aviation in Germany, who has studied boarding and deplaning extensively, recommends restricting carry-on luggage.


By reducing carry-ons and the inevitable loading and unloading of them into tight spaces can reduce transmission risk by about 75 per cent, he said. 


He also suggests that random boarding sequences be employed so that passengers aren’t all clambering into the same rows at the same time.


As for deplaning, while some European carriers are asking passengers to remain seated until called to disembark, US carriers have abandoned this and it is all back to normal (that is, a mad rush to exit despite the doors not yet being opened). 



Keep your mask on.

Turn the air gasper (the overhead air nozzle) on full blast and aim it in front of your face.

Go up a class (if you can afford it).

Stay seated.

Bring less.

Respect your fellow passengers and the cabin crew.


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Published: 6 October 2021

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