A new report published in Bloomberg has said that the chances of catching coronavirus while flying are very low. Despite the known dangers of crowded, enclosed spaces, planes have not been identified as the spots of so-called superspreading events, at least so far.
Arnold Barnett, a professor of management science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), has been trying to calculate the probabilities of catching COVID-19 from flying.
He’s factored in a bunch of variables, including the chances of being seated near someone in the infectious stage of the disease, and the odds that the protection of masks that is now mandatory in most flights.
He accounted for the way air is constantly renewed in airplane cabins, which experts say makes it very unlikely for a passenger to contract the disease from people who aren’t in their immediate area — their row or the person across the aisle, the people sitting in front of them or the people behind.
What Barnett came up with was that we have about a 1/4300 chance of getting a virus on a full 2-hour flight — that is, about 1 in 4300 passengers will pick up the virus, on average. The odds of getting the virus are about half that, 1/7700 if airlines leave the middle seat empty. Barnett has posted his results as a not-yet-peer-reviewed preprint.
The odds of dying of a case contracted in flight, he found, are even lower — between 1 in 400,000 and 1 in 600,000 — depending on the age and other risk factors. To put that in perspective, those odds are comparable to the average risk of getting a fatal case in a typical two hours on the ground.
University of Massachusetts biology professor Erin Bromage says he is flying every week, as he advises federal, state and district courts on how to reopen while minimizing risks.
Bromage says that the air exchange system in planes is better than in hospitals, with the air in the cabin being completely replaced 30 times every hour. He agrees with MIT’s Barnett, though, that it’s possible to transmit the disease to or from your close neighbours.
He and Barnett both suggested that customers should, if possible, choose an airline that promises to keep the middle seat empty.