< Reveal sidebar

IATA Medical Advisor Reports Studies Concluding Air Travel Is Still Safe

Traveler mask airport

A passenger with a mask waits at an airport. (Photo: Pexels)

The collapse of demand for air travel that has invested the airline industry following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has two main drivers: the restrictions to international mobility imposed by governments to curb the spread of the disease and the natural fear of prospective travelers to spend many hours in a confined space in close proximity to total strangers.

While travel bans are largely outside the control of airline operators, there is a lot the industry can do to educate the traveling public about the real risks involved in getting on an aircraft. Since general prevention measures have pivoted mainly on physical distancing and the need to maintain a distance of at least 3-6 feet between people, air travel is seen as incompatible with this requirement.

That belief comes even as most major airlines have taken proactive measures to protect the safety of their passengers by requiring masks to be worn at all times, deep cleaning the aircraft after every flight and providing full personal protecting equipment (PPE) to all crewmembers.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade organization that is made up of 290 airlines around the world representing 82% of worldwide traffic, has intensified its efforts to inform the traveling public about the actual level of risk that is involved in traveling on commercial aircraft. Medical Advisor Dr. David Powell on Aug. 23 took part in a question-and-answer session promoted by Aviation Week to report the results of the most recent published and unpublished scientific studies that have researched the actual incidence of COVID-19 proximity spread onboard an aircraft.

Studied Cases Confirm Low Infection Rates

Despite numerous reports in the press of infected passengers traveling onboard commercial aircraft, there have been very few documented cases of spread onboard, and none of those cases have been a subject of published research.

Vietnam Airlines flight VN54 from London to Hanoi on March 2 had recorded one primary infected passenger flying in business class, and a tracing exercise revealed two further business class passengers had subsequently been infected with the novel coronavirus, in addition to 12 more in economy and one crewmember. Although it cannot be determined with absolute certainty, it’s been assumed that those individuals were infected while on the flight. A second case, also in March, involving a five-hour flight on an Airbus A330 saw three primary infected travelers spreading the disease to up to 11 passengers.

Both these cases date back to a time when wearing masks during flights was not mandatory as it is now. Several other cases reported by Powell involve flights where passengers did not have to wear masks, revealing that the number of secondary infections contracted while flying tends to be limited to low numbers despite instances where multiple positive cases were present on the flight.

Internal data gathered by IATA among its members show that between January and March, when the level of flying was still much higher than it is today, on 70 airlines questioned representing 45% of worldwide traffic, only four events of transmission from passenger to crew have been recorded in addition to five transmissions from pilot to pilot.

Four of these cases have been analyzed in detail showing that on flights with a total of 1,100 passengers, there were only two cases of infection spreading from passengers to crew and only one from passenger to passenger.

Data, therefore, suggests that air travel does not promote the transmission of COVID-19, especially in comparison to other social situations, which are much more likely to provoke a much wider spread — with all things being equal. This is due to a combination of all passengers facing in the same direction, High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters being employed in aircraft’s air systems, the air in the cabin being completely replaced every two to three minutes, seatbacks acting as a solid barrier and airflow exchange rates and direction being less conducive to droplet spread than other indoor environments and modes of transport.

Additionally, the cases of the two biggest known inflight spread analyzed by published studies for which seating configuration information was available showed that spread can occur even across aisles, and therefore they would not have been prevented even if middle seats had been blocked. A blocked middle seat across all airlines worldwide would make on average only 62% of the seats available for sale.

IATA, representing airlines worldwide, does have a vested interest in promoting air travel as safe as the aviation industry reels in the wake of the pandemic.

Quarantine Not Always Appropriate

With regards to travel restrictions currently imposed by governments, Powell highlighted how quarantines are only effective when imposed on passengers traveling from an area with a high rate of transmission to an area with a low rate of transmission, while they are ineffective in any other circumstance. Furthermore, according to the London School of Tropical Medicine, a quarantine period of one week or less — with a negative test performed at the beginning and at the end of the period — is equally effective in the prevention of spreading the disease.

The need for a quarantine period is proving to be a very powerful deterrent for prospective travelers. According to a survey by IATA, 83% of people are unwilling to travel if they need to be subjected to quarantine at their destination or after they return. A need for quarantine is effectively a travel ban, the group said, and it will be extremely difficult to have any sort of recovery for international travel while those measures are still in place.

Vanni Gibertini


  • Vanni Gibertini

    Vanni fell in love with commercial aviation during his undergraduate studies in Statistics at the University of Bologna, when he prepared his thesis on the effects of deregulation on the U.S. and European aviation markets. Then he pursued his passion further by obtaining a Master’s Degree in Air Transport Management at Cranfield University in the U.K. followed by holding several management positions at various start-up carriers in Europe (Jet2, SkyEurope, Silverjet). After moving to Canada, he was Business Development Manager for IATA for nine years before turning to his other passion: sports writing.

    View all posts

Subscribe to AirlineGeeks' Daily Check-In

Receive a daily dose of the airline industry's top stories along with market insights right in your inbox.

Related Stories

Southwest Incident: Flight Descends Within 400 Feet Over Ocean

On April 11, 2024, a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 was approaching Lihue airport in Hawaii, on an inter-island…

Lufthansa Bid for Stake in ITA Airways May Be ‘Close to Approval’

The Lufthansa Group’s (Deutsche Lufthansa AG) bid for a 41 percent stake in ITA Airways may be close to approval…

‘Dutch Roll’ Incident Prompts FAA/NTSB Investigation

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are investigating yet another alarming incident in which a…