A Reality Check on COVID-19 Risks From Air Travel

The holidays are approaching just as COVID-19 case rates nationwide are increasing at a record-breaking pace, leading to dire warnings from public health experts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued cautions and updated guidelines related to family gatherings. Dr. Anthony Fauci, a White House coronavirus adviser and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in interviews that his kids won’t be coming home for Thanksgiving because of coronavirus risks. “Relatives getting on a plane, being exposed in an airport,” he told CBS News. “And then walking in the door and saying ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ — that you have to be concerned about.”

Are Americans listening? Maybe not. Especially as airlines, reeling from major revenue blows since the pandemic took hold in March, tell passengers they can travel with peace of mind and sweeten the deal with special holiday fares.

The airlines argue more is now known about the virus and recent industry-sponsored studies show flying is just as safe as regular daily activities. They also tout policies such as mask mandates and enhanced cleaning to protect travelers from the coronavirus.

Time for a reality check.

Americans who do choose to fly will be subject to evolving COVID safety policies that vary by airline, a result of the continuing lack of a unified federal strategy. Under the Trump administration, government agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have failed to issue and enforce any national directives for air travel.

And, though President-elect Joe Biden has signaled he will take a more robust federal approach to addressing COVID-19, which may result in such actions, the Trump administration remains in charge during the upcoming holiday season.

Here’s what you need to know before you book.

Airlines Say It’s Safe to Fly During the Pandemic. Is it?
Editor’s note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

The airline industry pins its safety clearance to a study funded by its leading trade group, Airlines for America, and conducted by Harvard University researchers, as well as one headed by the Department of Defense, with assistance from United Airlines.

Both reports modeled disease transmission on a plane, assuming all individuals were masked and the airplane’s highly effective air filtration systems were working. The Harvard report concluded the risk of in-flight COVID-19 transmission was “below that of other routine activities during the pandemic, such as grocery shopping or eating out,” while the DOD study concluded an individual would need to, hypothetically, sit for 54 straight hours on an airplane to catch COVID-19 from another passenger.

But these studies’ assumptions have limitations.

Despite airlines’ ramped-up enforcement of mask-wearing, reports of noncompliance among passengers continue. Most airlines say passengers who outright refuse to wear masks will not only be refused boarding, but will also be putting their future travel privileges at risk. Recent press reports indicate Delta has placed hundreds of these passengers on a no-fly list. Some passengers may still try to skirt around the rule by removing their mask to eat or drink for an extended time on the flight, and flight attendants may or may not feel they can stop them.

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store