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Airlines say transmission of COVID-19 in flight is rare but so is data to prove it

Gov. Ron DeSantis, travel executives: Risk of catching virus on flight is low

Melaku Gebermariam uses an electrostatic sprayer to disinfect the inside of a Delta Airplane between flights on July 22, at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va. U.S. airlines have scrambled to reassure travelers that planes are safe. They require passengers to wear face masks and are cleaning cabins more thoroughly, even spraying seats with anti-microbial mist. (AP Photo/Nathan Ellgren)
Melaku Gebermariam uses an electrostatic sprayer to disinfect the inside of a Delta Airplane between flights on July 22, at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va. U.S. airlines have scrambled to reassure travelers that planes are safe. They require passengers to wear face masks and are cleaning cabins more thoroughly, even spraying seats with anti-microbial mist. (AP Photo/Nathan Ellgren)

ORLANDO, Fla. – The largest international airline association and Florida’s governor say passengers on commercial flights are at low risk for contracting coronavirus but with no contact tracing in place for airlines and little data it’s really unclear what is the risk of transmission on planes.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke with airline, rental car and travel industry executives Friday at the Fort Lauderdale International Airport to talk about the impact of the pandemic on travel and what companies are doing to prevent the spread of the virus.

DeSantis reassured travelers flying would not increase their chances of catching the virus but didn’t disclose what data or studies could prove that.

“The fact of the matter is, the airplanes have just not been vectors where you’ve seen a lot of spread of the coronavirus. That’s just the reality. Part of that is because of what they do with the air filtration, what they do for cleanliness, obviously, they do space people out, they have different mitigation measures in place,” DeSantis said.

The general manager for JetBlue at Fort Lauderdale International Airport also echoed a similar claim.

“There’s no data really out there to show that the public is getting sick on airplanes just because of the HEPA filter that we have on all aircraft that kind of combats that, the Coronavirus,” Nishal Nawbatt said.

HEPA filters capture 99.97% of airborne microbes by circulating the air in the cabin every three minutes, according to JetBlue. The airline says the cabin air is “completely changed about every three minutes with 50% fresh air and 50% HEPA filtered air.”

All airlines have put in place safety measures, from requiring masks, spacing out passengers and using new filtration and cleaning systems but the measures vary between companies.

DeSantis said “we track the best we can what goes on in Florida” and asked the airline representatives if they’ve seen in outbreaks related to air travel.

“We’ve we’ve had zero outbreaks and spirit. And really, we’ve had zero guests come forward to say that they’ve had any kind of problem on board the aircraft,” a Spirit Airlines executive told the governor.

The International Air Transport Association, a trade group that represents international airlines making up 82% of global air traffic, said in a report “little is available in the way of published research on in-flight transmission of COVID-19.”

The IATA conducted its own research that shows the risk is low for passengers. The informal survey of 18 major airlines from January to March 2020, which was the beginning of the pandemic in the US, found eight suspected in-flight transmission or COVID-19, that were either passenger to crew or pilot to pilot.

IATA analyzed four airlines that had close contact with local public health authorities during the outbreak. The four airlines combined followed up on around 1,100 passengers who were identified as confirmed cases having recently flown, according to the trade group.

“The research we have seen to date, and our own investigations with the world’s airlines, tell us that the risk of catching COVID-19 on a flight remains very low. There appears to be a number of factors supporting that. The high flow rate of cabin air from top to bottom, constant filtering of air through state-of-the-art HEPA filters, the fact that all seats face the same direction and of course wearing a face covering and sanitization of the aircraft all play a part,” IATA’s Medical Advisor, Dr. David Powell said in a news release.

Reuters reports the Trump administration has worked with airlines to create a formal plan to collect contact tracing information from U.S.-bound international passengers but the effort stalled and is unlikely to happen this year, according to the news outlet.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, travel of any kind increases the chances of getting and spreading the virus. Those chances increase or decrease depending on the steps someone takes including wearing a mask and keeping six feet distance from people outside their household.

“Airports, bus stations, train stations, and rest stops are all places travelers can be exposed to the virus in the air and on surfaces. These are also places where it can be hard to social distance. In general, the longer you are around a person with COVID-19, the more likely you are to get infected,” according to CDC information on COVID-19 and travel.

Air travel, according to the CDC, requires passengers to spend time in lines and long periods in airport terminals which can create more close contact with others and frequently touched surfaces.

“Most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of how air circulates and is filtered on airplanes. However, social distancing is difficult on crowded flights, and sitting within 6 feet of others, sometimes for hours, may increase your risk of getting COVID-19,” according to CDC.gov.


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