Flights: Exposure to coronavirus on planes ‘virtually non-existent’ claims expert study

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Travellers may have some anxiety about boarding a flight in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. This is particularly due to the fear that they may be more at risk of contracting the virus during their journey.

Yet, a new study conducted by the US Department of Defense, through US Transportation Command (TRANSCOM) has shown evidence that the risk of COVID-19 onboard a flight is “virtually non-existent”.

They conducted the trial on a United Airways aircraft and discovered that based on airflow in the cabin, seated passengers are only exposed to around 0.003 percent of infected air.

However, passengers must be wearing a face mask.

The study found that “masks continue to help minimise exposure when someone coughs.”

“This study was the most comprehensive on cabin airflow done to date and demonstrates that when a passenger is seated and wearing a mask on average only 0.003 percent of infected air particles could enter their breathing zone, even when every seat on the plane is occupied,” explains the study findings.

“The study was conducted entirely onboard United Airlines aircraft and found that fast onboard air recirculation, downward designed air ventilation and efficient HEPA filters make the cabin of a United aeroplane one of the safest indoor environments in the world.”

UK airlines including British Airways, easyJet and Jet2 have all outlined the use of HEPA filters onboard, much like those used by the United aircraft.

These air filtration systems are often considered to be “hospital-grade” and are likened to those used in operating theatres.

The trial took place over six months, with 300 tests conducted over 38 hours of flight time and 45 hours of testing on the ground.

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With help from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), experts released particles across the entire cabin by section.

Each section had 42 bio-defence sensors set up in every seat, across multiple rows.

Sensors were also placed in the galleys and jet bridge during ground testing.

Additionally, a mannequin dubbed “Ruth”, equipped with an integrated aerosol generator was used to simulate breathing and coughing with a mask on and off.

The sensors, which represented other passengers, then detected how many particles they came into contact with when Ruth coughed.

The study also took into account the impact body heat may have on transmission, by using thermal blankets to simulate this.

Though airlines are doing their bit to ensure safety and hygiene onboard is increased, it is also down to passengers to play their role too.

That is why the experts believe wearing your mandatory face mask is so important.

“Throughout the pandemic, our top priority has been the health and safety of our customers and crew,” commented Toby Enqvist, chief customer officer for United.

“These results from the Department of Defense demonstrate that the steps we have taken at United, including maximising airflow, running our air filtration system at all times, enforcing a mandatory mask policy and overhauling our cleaning procedures mean your chances of COVID-exposure on a United aircraft are nearly non-existent, even if your flight is full.”

Airlines around the world have also increased how often flights undergo “deep cleans”.

The majority of airlines now clean cabins after every flight, with each aircraft subject to a full deep clean, using anti-virus disinfectant, every 24 hours.

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