How Safe Is Flying in the Age of Coronavirus?
With many governments loosening travel restrictions to restart economies, airlines have begun restoring flights that were put on hold as the coronavirus pandemic spread. Business is slow, as would-be passengers worry about being stuck in a cabin for an extended time with possibly infectious strangers. The record shows the risks aren’t negligible.
1. Has coronavirus spread on airplanes?
Yes. While there is still relatively little published research on the spread of the virus on airlines, an investigation into a March 2 flight from the U.K. to Vietnam suggested that one passenger transmitted the virus to as many as 14 others and a crew member. Twelve of these passengers were sitting close to the suspected first case, which matches the expected spread of this and other coronaviruses. The International Air Transport Association, the trade group for the world’s airlines, said that aside from this case, an informal survey of 18 major airlines identified four episodes in the first three months of the year of suspected in-flight transmission from passengers to crew, and a further four where one pilot appeared to give the virus to another. This group of airlines represented 14% of global air traffic in that period, according to IATA.
2. Have similar viruses spread on planes?
Yes, viruses including SARS, influenza and smallpox, which like the novel coronavirus are transmitted through the coughing, sneezing and breathing of those who are infected, have spread on aircraft. During the 2003 outbreak of SARS, which is also caused by a coronavirus, 40 flights were found to have carried probable cases of the SARS virus and resulted in spread to other passengers. Studies have found that the greatest risk comes from sitting within two rows of a contagious passenger for a flight longer than 8 hours. Still, in a case in which 20 people developed the virus from exposure to an infected passenger on an Air China flight from Hong Kong to Beijing, fewer than half were sitting within two rows of the original case. And more infections were seen in passengers sitting on the opposite side of the center aisle.
3. What can make flying risky?
People infected with the novel coronavirus emit virus-containing droplets from their noises and mouths, which can be transferred directly to someone in close proximity or by touching a contaminated surface and then the mouth, nose or eyes. What makes flying risky is the same as other forms of transport: close proximity to other people and common touch areas. The airport can also be a risk as passengers wait in queues, check in for flights, visit food vendors, and use facilities such as bathrooms.
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