COVID-19 transmission aboard aircraft and flights are low-risk, suggests research by International Air Transport Association (IATA). According to the association, between January and June this year, 1.2 billion people traveled on aircraft, out of which only 44 cases of COVID-19 transmission were reported.

IATA's Medical Advisor Dr. David Powell presumes the figures to be underestimated, yet reassuring, as during the first six months face-covering onboard was not required.

"We recognize that this may be an underestimate but even if 90% of the cases were unreported, it would be one case for every 2.7 million travelers. We think these figures are extremely reassuring. Furthermore, the vast majority of published cases occurred before the wearing of face coverings inflight became widespread," said Dr. Powell.

IATA recommended wearing masks on board in June 2020, followed by a Takeoff Guidance was implemented by the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

An Emirates aircraft at Velana International Airport, Male' Maldives. (Photo/Sun Media Group)

Dr. Powell said, "ICAO’s comprehensive guidance for safe air travel amid the COVID-19 crisis relies on multiple layers of protection, which involve the airports as well as the aircraft. Mask-wearing is one of the most visible. But managed queuing, contactless processing, reduced movement in the cabin, and simplified onboard services are among the multiple measures the aviation industry is taking to keep flying safely. And this is on top of the fact that airflow systems are designed to avoid the spread of disease with high airflow rates and air exchange rates and highly effective filtration of any recycled air."

Researches conducted by aircraft manufacturers Airbus, Boeing, and Embraer shows airflow systems onboard control the movement of particles in the cabinet and limits the spread of the virus. Moreover, the research reaffirmed that wearing masks on board adds a further and significant layer of protection for while being seated in close proximity.

Further layers of protection that contribute to the low rate of inflight transmission have got to do with aircraft design characteristics. This includes

  • Limited face-to-face interaction of passengers as they face forward
  • Seat-backs act as a physical barrier to air movement from one row to the other
  • The minimization of the forward-aft flow of air and segmented flow of design which directs downward
  • High rate of fresh air coming into the cabin. According to IATA, air is exchanged 20-30 times per hour onboard on most aircrafts
  • The use of High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters which have an efficiency rate of more than 99.9% in bacteria/virus removal.