Experts Weigh In About How Much Airborne COVID Germs Really Spread on a Plane

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When it comes to the coronavirus, we already know that many outdoor activities are safer than indoor activities, that is, as long as precautions like social distancing are followed. We also know that activities that involve only a few people are safer than activities that involve large groups of people, where social distancing is more difficult.

If you have summer travel plans, you might be wondering how safe it is to fly on an airplane. If airflow inside a restaurant, for example, is more likely to cause germs to spread than airflow outside on a restaurant’s patio, it would only seem to make sense that airflow in an enclosed place like an airplane would be quite risky, but is it?

It helps to understand how airplane cabin air is circulated. First, the air is pulled in from outside the plane. Then, it goes through HEPA filters which remove most germs. Finally, the air is pushed through the cabin from air ducts at the top of the plane down towards vents in the floor. Then the air is pushed out of the cabin. Basically, it’s not like you’re sitting in the same air for several hours. 

Another positive about airplanes is that the seats are so tall that they basically act as barriers between passengers. It would be pretty difficult to get sick from another passenger unless that passenger is sitting in the same row as you.

According to aviation expert Robert W. Mann, “I would be less concerned about cabin air…than the hygieneity of cabin surfaces, armrests and tray tables, and anything in the lavs, particularly.”

Even these high touch surfaces may not be a huge concern since airplanes have stepped up their cabin sanitizing measures, and passengers are welcome to wipe down areas around their seats.

So, the air is ok. Social distancing is pretty much possible thanks to the tall seats. You could wipe down the area around your seat. Does that mean that airplane travel is low risk?

Not exactly. You can’t forget about getting to and from the airplane. Airports may not be as clean as airplanes. R. Eric Jones, an associate professor and chair of the Aviation Maintenance Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, isn’t concerned about airplane cabin air, but he is concerned about airports. “For me, the cabin air, I’m much more comfortable with than I would be going through a TSA line. I would probably be more worried about eating at an airport restaurant.”

It sounds like you don’t necessarily need to cancel your travel plans, but do proceed with caution, especially when you’re inside the airport where surfaces may not be as clean as they are inside an airplane and where social distancing may be more difficult.

Are you going to be flying anywhere this summer?