Planes almost entirely safe from coronavirus transmission if everyone wears masks: study

Coronavirus transmission on planes is extremely rare, as long as everyone wears a mask, according to a new study.

In the research, conducted by the U.S. Department of Defense in partnership with United Airlines, researchers ran 300 tests in about six months with a single mannequin on a United plane, ABC News reported.

To study the particle emissions and travel, they hooked the mannequin up to an aerosol generator so technicians could approximate breathing and coughing. Each test released 180 million particles, the amount that thousands of coughs would produce, ABC News said. Then the particles' movement was studied throughout the cabin via sensors placed on every seat, galley and the jet bridge.

A photo from the United Airlines study.
A photo from the United Airlines study.

A photo from the United Airlines study. (United Airlines /)

“99.99% of those particles left the interior of the aircraft within six minutes,” United Airlines Chief Communication Officer Josh Earnest told ABC News.

The findings seem to corroborate data from the International Air Transport Association, which last week reported that since the beginning of the year, 1.2 billion passengers have traveled by air and only 44 have gotten COVID-19 from planes.

“The risk of a passenger contracting COVID-19 while onboard appears very low,” the group’s medical adviser Dr. David Powell said in a statement. He noted that even if the infection rate were 90%, that would be one case per 2.7 million travelers.

“We think these figures are extremely reassuring,” Powell said. “Furthermore, the vast majority of published cases occurred before the wearing of face coverings inflight became widespread.”

The newer studies are based on information about the coronavirus gleaned since the early days of the pandemic.

Indeed, two studies whose results were released last month indicated that flights, especially long ones, could be prime vectors for coronavirus transmission. But those flights had taken place in the early days of the pandemic, before full shutdowns, and when mask-wearing was yet to be ubiquitous, CNN reported at the time.

Experts emphasized that flights are the least of worries when it comes to traveling, especially for the holidays. With cases surging and the weather cooling, forcing more people indoors, the likelihood of transmission increases.

Health experts advise people to think twice before visiting their relatives for Thanksgiving. Both the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, have cautioned against such gatherings, given that they appear to be fueling the current uptick in cases.