Is It Safe to Fly During The Pandemic? A New Case Study Sheds Light On The Question

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Is it risky to get on a plane while Covid-19 is still in the picture? It’s easy to assume that being in a tightly packed, poorly ventilated cabin is not the best place to be when the world is going through a global pandemic. However, there have been relatively few scientific studies about the risks of air travel and the transmission of SARS-Cov-2. 

In one of the most comprehensive case studies yet, a team of scientists from Goethe University in Germany detail how Covid-19 seems to have spread between different groups of travelers on a commercial flight. The report shows how seven people on the flight were sick with Covid-19 and most likely passed the virus onto two other people within the nearest two rows. In other words, there were two strongly suspected cases stemming from the seven infected people — it appears transmission occurred, but the risk was perhaps not as high as expected.

“We did detect likely transmissions during this flight, therefore transmissions [on a flight] may occur,” Professor Sandra Ciesek, study author and Director of the Institute for Medical Virology at Goethe University, told IFLScience. 

However, Ciesek added that "it could be considered reassuring that the transmission rate was not higher."

Reported in JAMA Network Open, the case study details a commercial flight between Tel Aviv in Israel to Frankfurt in Germany that occurred on March 9, 2020, and lasted for 4 hours 40 minutes. Since this was during the early stages of the pandemic in Europe, face masks were not the norm and many were still lax about social distancing measures.

Out of the 102 passengers on board, 24 were members of the same group of tourists. All 24 members of the tourist group underwent a medical evaluation and testing for SARS-CoV-2 just after touching down, while 71 of the other passengers were contacted 4-5 weeks later for interviews. The remaining seven passengers could not be contacted.

Of the 24 tourist group members, 7 tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 just after landing in the German airport. Four of them felt ill during the flight, two felt fine at the time but later developed symptoms, and one remained asymptomatic. It’s thought this cluster became infected over the previous week after coming into contact with a hotel manager who later tested positive for Covid-19. 

Two cases of possible in-air transmission were identified in passengers not part of the tourist group, both of whom sat within two rows of the known infected people. In one of these cases, transmission from the flight seems highly likely as they quarantined for 14 days after landing but still fell ill. In the other case, they did not quarantine, so the researchers can’t totally exclude the possibility they caught the infection after landing. However, they believe it's likely they caught it on the plane. 

Overall, it’s a fairly murky picture, which goes to show how hard it is to track and trace people while they’re jet-setting across the world. Nevertheless, the researchers argue their report suggests Covid-19 can be passed on, possibly through in-air transmission, on a busy plane. They also indicate that this risk could be further slashed if all passengers and crew wear faces masks, which they did not in this case. 

We know that masks are very effective in preventing transmissions, and should be applied on the plane," said Professor Ciesek.

“There have been few reported cases of in-air transmission on an airplane. But it may occur, when no measures to reduce prevention are applied. This is an important aspect of air travel during the pandemic.”

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