Catching COVID On An Airplane About As Likely As Being Struck by Lightning: IATA

Anna Kroupina, Open Jaw

They could have used other examples of extremely low odds: a meteor strike, winning the powerball, finding a four-leaf clover. 

IATA is using the dramatic comparison to a lightning strike to emphasize the relative safety of air travel.  

The association's Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, stated in a news release that according to its data, there have been 44 cases of COVID-19 transmitted onboard aircraft among 1.2 billion passengers travelling since the start of 2020. That's one case for every 27 million travellers -  actually much smaller than the odds of being struck by lightning.  

IATA's medical advisor, Dr. David Powell, added that “the risk of a passenger contracting Covid-19 while onboard appears very low. We recognize that this may be an underestimate but even if 90% of the cases were un-reported, it would be one case for every 2.7 million travellers. We think these figures are extremely reassuring.  Furthermore, the vast majority of published cases occurred before the wearing of face coverings inflight became widespread.”

IATA points to a joint publication by aircraft manufacturers Airbus, Boeing and Embraer to explain the marginal chances of infection in-flight. The manufacturers' report says the low numbers are, in part, to the efficacy of airflow systems on aircraft in controlling the movement of particles in the cabin, limiting the spread of viruses. 

In the case of Boeing, the manufacturer studied the coughing passenger with and without a mask, the coughing passenger located in various seats including the middle seat, and different variations of passengers’ individual overhead air vents on and off.

“This modelling determined the number of cough particles that entered the breathing space of the other passengers”, said Dan Freeman, the chief engineer for Boeing’s Confident Travel Initiative.  “We then compared a similar scenario in other environments, such as an office conference room. Based on the airborne particle count, passengers sitting next to one another on an airplane is the same as standing more than seven feet (or two meters) apart in a typical building environment.”

The Airbus study found that potential exposure to COVID-19 was actually lower when seated side-by-side on a plane than when staying six feet apart in an environment such as an office, classroom or grocery store.

“After multiple, highly-detailed simulations using the most accurate scientific methods available, we have concrete data which reveals the aircraft cabin offers a much safer environment than indoor public spaces,” said Bruno Fargeon, Airbus Engineering and the leader of the Airbus Keep Trust in Air Travel Initiative. “The way that air circulates, is filtered and replaced on airplanes creates an absolutely unique environment in which you have just as much protection being seated side-by-side as you would standing six feet apart on the ground.”

According to IATA, the High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, the natural barrier of the seatback, the downward flow of air, and high rates of air exchange all work together to reduce the risk of disease transmission on board. The addition of mask-wearing amid pandemic concerns adds a further and significant extra layer of protection.

IATA pointed to another study, a peer-reviewed study by Freedman and Wilder-Smith in the Journal of Travel Medicine, which also supported the low numbers of in-flight transmissions and pointed to the efficacy of mask-wearing in further reducing risk.

“There is no single silver-bullet measure that will enable us to live and travel safely in the age of COVID-19. But the combination of measures that are being put in place is reassuring travellers the world over that COVID-19 has not defeated their freedom to fly. Nothing is completely risk-free. But with just 44 published cases of potential inflight COVID-19 transmission among 1.2 billion travellers, the risk of contracting the virus on board appears to be in the same category as being struck by lightning,” concluded de Juniac.

Anna Kroupina

Anna Kroupina Journalist

Anna is OJ's newest member and she joins the team as a writer/reporter. She co-writes the daily news and covers events. Although she's new to the industry, pursuing a career path in travel/tourism has been a goal since her first family road trip to the Florida Keys sparked a desire to discover the world and this exhilarating, fast-paced industry.


Gary - October 13, 2020 @ 12:57
All fine and good until you land in Florida.

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