Skip to Content

Latest Data On The Risk Of Catching COVID While Flying

Share The Article

Last Updated

Millions of people are still flying during the pandemic, but is it safe?

With high quality air filtration systems and safety measures implemented by airlines, a recent research report says it’s safer to fly than going to a grocery store. 

As optimism increases for a COVID vaccine and the finish line stretches closer, 2021 is seeming to provide travelers a breath of fresh air when it comes to going back to doing what they love. 

However, as good as this news may be to the airlines and tourism industries, the reality is that there is still some time to go before the vaccine is readily available for distribution to the public, and even when it does become readily available, not all travelers are interested in getting vaccinated.

For the time being, travelers are faced with the risks of contracting COVID while traveling by plane. 

Consequently, we take a look at how risky traveling on an airplane really is.

Research Says Low Risk

Harvard University recently conducted a study on the risk level of contracting COVID while traveling by plane, and found that the ventilation of air on an aircraft has lower exposure to COVID than routine settings such as restaurants and grocery stores.

This is attributed to the fact that modern aircrafts are equipped with exceedingly high quality air filters which are capable of recycling new air every two to three minutes, while removing 99.97% of contaminants.

plane ground crew in masks

The study further found that additional safety measures set forth by airlines, such as wearing masks, social distancing and thorough cleaning and disinfection of surfaces in the aircraft further lower the risk of COVID transmission. 

safety measures on airplane

It should be noted that this study was sponsored by various US airlines, operators and airports.

In addition, a study conducted in 2018, prior to the pandemic, on the transmission of illnesses such as influenced on aircrafts found that the chances of infection were highly unlikely for passengers seated farther than two seats on either side, or one row in front or back. This study did not take into account the wearing of masks.

Westjet in calgary

Decreased Risks On Airplane Not Operating At Full Capacity 

A study was undertaken by MIT statistics professor, Arnold Barnett, to assess whether the risk of contracting COVID was lower for airlines implementing an empty middle seat policy.  

The study specifically took data from domestic US airlines flights. 

Barnett reported that the odds of catching the virus on a full flight are 1 in 4,300, however, if the middle seat was empty, the odds fell to 1 in 7,700. 

traveler with mask waits in line airport

The risk assessment is based on three conditions which must be met for a transmission to occur. A COVID positive passenger that is contagious must be on board, they must not be wearing a mask or the mask they are wearing must fail, and they would have to be within close proximity of another passenger to create transmission.

US airlines which are currently enforcing a no middle seat policy are Alaska, Delta, Hawaiian and JetBlue.

passengers arriving in plane

For airlines that are operating at capacity, the study noted that while there is not much statistical difference on the seat you take, window seats are marginally safer than middle or aisle seats. 

Masks Are Effective

Data appears to show an effectiveness to wearing masks in order to combat COVID. An example which is cited is a Vietnamese traveler infecting 15 travelers on a flight in March, when the pandemic was still in its infancy and regulations and restrictions were not enforced.

traveler in mask looking at flights

In contrast, in January of this year, a flight originating from Wuhan was departing to Toronto. On the flight, a passenger was COVID positive, however, he was wearing a mask by his own choice. Over the course of the 15-hour flight, none of the other 350 passengers on board were found to test positive.

David Freedman, Doctor of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama analyzed data relating to COVID transmission on Emirates flights enforcing a strict masking policy. 

airline attended in mask on plane

Freedman found that over the course of three weeks, Emirates flew five flights which had a combined 58 COVID positive passengers on board, yet no other passenger contracted the virus. There were an estimated 1500-2000 passengers on these flights, and the flights were in air for 8 hours. 

Other Risks To Consider

Though the data shows a moderately low risk to traveling on aircrafts with appropriate measures in place, there are other factors to consider. 

A recent outbreak in Ireland which led to 59 confirmed COVID positive cases has been linked to an international flight into Ireland.

Of the confirmed cases, 13 were passengers on the same flight, all of which transferred via a large international airport. 

This is supported by the CDC’s position of air travel increasing the risk of getting COVID. 

According to the CDC, air travel includes waiting in lines and spending time at the airport, departure terminals and transfer gates. All of these activities present additional risks and exposure to COVID. 

The CDC strongly advises everyone to wear a mask on airplanes and at airports and transportation hubs.

↓ Join the community ↓

The Travel Off Path Community FB group has all the latest reopening news, conversations, and Q&A's happening daily! 

Subscribe to our Latest Posts

Enter your email address to subscribe to Travel Off Path's latest breaking travel news, straight to your inbox

Disclaimer: Current travel rules and restrictions can change without notice. The decision to travel is ultimately your responsibility. Contact your consulate and/or local authorities to confirm your nationality’s entry and/or any changes to travel requirements before traveling.  Travel Off Path does not endorse traveling against government advisories