So you might be flying in the next few days, and you’ve probably heard of the coronavirus spreading around the world. This means that some of the infected people have taken a flight, and if they did, you too could potentially be exposed.
How likely are you to catch a virus on a plane, and what should you do to protect yourself during the flight?
The good news is that according to the World Health Organization, the threat of catching a virus from the air is very low, as the air on the plane is purified through surgical-grade filters:
“ The quality of aircraft cabin air is carefully controlled. Ventilation rates provide a total change of air 20–30 times per hour. Most modern aircraft have recirculation systems, which recycle up to 50% of cabin air.
The recirculated air is usually passed through HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters, of the type used in hospital operating theatres and intensive care units, which trap dust particles, bacteria, fungi and viruses.”
There might be situations when the air-circulation system is not functioning, such as when the aircraft is still on the ground and there is a delay.
“ An auxiliary power unit is normally used to provide ventilation when the aircraft is on the ground, before the main engines are started, but occasionally this is not operated for environmental (noise) or technical reasons.
In such cases, when associated with a prolonged delay, passengers may be temporarily disembarked.”
However, even when the airplane is on the ground, the chance of catching it because of the flow of air through the ventilation system is still low. While from these numbers it seems that the risk is negligible, it is not zero.
Now, for the bad news. If you are on a plane, you still have the possibility of catching the virus.
The risk comes from direct exposure to an infected person on the plane.
A study from 2018 mapped how a virus spreads throughout an airplane cabin and came out with some interesting findings. There are two main risk factors:
- The risk increases exponentially in several cases, the most important being when you are sitting near a passenger who is already infected.
- The risk of catching a virus is also highly dependent on how much you move around the plane during the flight.
For the first factor, it was found that the critical number of seats around the sick person is two. This means you have a higher chance of catching the virus, if you are sitting in either the row in front of the sick person, the row behind, or on the two seats on either side.
The second factor that influences how likely you are to catch the virus is how much you or the infected person move around during the flight. The risk is also higher, if one of the flight attendants is infected.
However, in these cases when movement is involved, the chance of getting it is still not very high.
Professor Howard Weiss, one of the researchers responsible for the study, summarized the conclusions this way:
“We found that direct disease transmission outside of the one-meter area of an infected passenger is unlikely.”
With movement around the plane, in an unlikely chance you could potentially catch the virus directly. This could happen for example if the infected person sneezes, and the droplets land on you.
It could also happen indirectly, through touching surfaces with residual remnants of the virus still active. This means that you should be extra careful when touching these types of surfaces.
The study stated that:
“Researchers also noted fomite transmission — exposure to viruses that remain on certain surfaces such as tray tables, seat belts and lavatory handles — as additional likely contributors to disease transmission.”
What should you do?
- Get the window seat.
The window seats have proven to be the safest places to sit when it comes to catching viruses and other germs.
This is because, they are usually further away and if the infected person is moving around, it is highly unlikely that if they sneeze or cough, the particles that they emit will reach you.
Of course, this doesn’t apply if the infected person is sitting next you. In that case, window seats are death traps.
2. Try not to touch anything, and wash your hands frequently.
Hygiene is key in this. Something as simple as washing your hands can lower your risk of catching the infection significantly.
This has been known ever since the 19th century, when doctor Semmelweis working in a Vienna hospital noticed that the rate of death of newborn infants dropped to below 1% (from rates above 10% mortality rate in hospitals), if the doctors and nurses delivering the baby washed their hands with a disinfectant.
According to another scientific study, coronaviruses such as SARS or MERS can stay on metal, glass, or plastic surfaces up to 9 days!
This means that if you touch a surface where the residual droplets containing the virus are still active, you could potentially infect yourself.
Howard Weiss noted how you can lower your chances of getting the virus:
“Passengers and flight crews can eliminate this risk of indirect transmission by exercising hand hygiene and keeping their hands away from their nose and eyes.”
The important thing is to try to keep your mind alert, and don’t put your hands up to your eyes, mouth, or nose, since these are the most likely entry points of the virus into the body.
The surgical masks that you sometimes see people wearing can help too, but not too much.
It’s always good to have an extra layer of protection, but the masks themselves are actually more effective when you are sick, as a way to prevent your sickness from being spread to other people.
Here are some suggestions from the WHO on how to use the masks properly. What is effective is the N95 respirator, but it is quite hard to use, and according to specialists, there is really no need for it at this point.
We still have no idea how things will turn out. The COVID-19 virus, the lethal strain of the coronavirus in question, seems to be spreading to different parts of the world quite fast.
The CDC has put out guidelines on what the airplane crews need to do in order to limit the spread of the virus, but there is always a risk. The risk increases the longer the flight, plus don’t forget that you could also be potentially exposed at the airport and other places.
Hopefully, this thing will subside, but until it does, keep safe!