With the holidays coming up, many of us are lamenting the fact that we won’t be able to see our loved ones who live out of town because of the pandemic.
But a new study by the U.S. military shows that flying may be safer than you think. It found that the risk of being infected by coronavirus on an airliner is very low if the passengers wear masks.
The scientists rigged a test dummy to emit germs at the same rate a masked coronavirus-infected person would. Then they put sensors and fluorescent tracers throughout planes to detect the virus.
The researchers performed some 300 tests over eight days. They used Boeing 767 and 777 jetliners.
They found that 99.7% of coronavirus germs were eliminated by the planes’ ventilation systems before they would reach the passengers seated closest to the dummy—either right next to, or just in front and behind.
This small amount of virus would not be enough to cause infection during a normal-length plane trip, the scientists said. Getting infectious dose of coronavirus with this level of exposure would require flying for 54 hours, the researchers calculated.
Expanding outward, to the next 40 seats closest to the dummy, the amount of germs was even smaller. The study showed that 99.99% of germs were eliminated.
Even when the researchers simulated having the dummy cough, virus levels in the cabin remained low.
The study does have limitations. It simulated having only one infected passenger on a plane. Virus levels would likely be higher if there were more. And the study did not test what happens if an infected passenger moves about the cabin to use the bathroom or for another reason.
The study also assumed that all the passengers wore masks and were diligent about wearing them correctly.
Still, “the results are encouraging,” said Commander Joe Pope, who oversaw the study for U.S. Transportation Command.
A spokesperson for United Airlines, which donated the planes used in the study, said “Your chances of COVID exposure on a United aircraft are nearly nonexistent, even if your flight is full.” 
Researchers were not willing to go that far. They said the results “showed an overall low exposure risk.”
Engineers at jet makers Boeing and Airbus recently did their own tests. They concluded that the risk of being exposed to the virus by someone seated next to you on an aircraft is about the same as from someone six or seven feet away in an office, a classroom, or a store.
If You Fly During the Pandemic, Do This…
Besides wearing a mask, here are steps you can take to minimize your exposure if you decide to fly:
- Don’t close your overhead vent. Dr. Mark Gendreau has extensively studied how infectious organisms spread through airplanes. If you leave the air vent on, it actually helps you avoid viruses and bacteria, he says.
The air coming out of the vent is run through a HEPA filter. It can remove more than 99% of germs and other contaminants.
What’s more, the overhead vent creates a turbulent zone that helps keep viruses that escape the filtration system from settling in your mouth, nose, and eyes, Dr. Gendreau said.
- Bring sanitizing wipes. As soon as you sit down, use them to disinfect your armrests, tray table, headphones, and other hard surfaces. Also use them on your hands several times during the flight.
- Be extra vigilant in restrooms. Don’t bring purses, cellphones, and other objects into plane restrooms that can pick up germs. Use a paper towel as a barrier when you touch faucets and toilet handles. On your way out, use a paper towel to open the door.
- Beware of airline pillows and blankets. They are not laundered between flights and can be teeming with germs. Instead, bring your own travel pillow or blanket. Or use your jacket.
- Stay hydrated. Your immune system doesn’t work well when you’re dehydrated. During flights, drink one to two cups of water per hour. Skip alcoholic beverages, which can promote dehydration.
Many of us have chosen not to fly during the pandemic. But if you do travel by plane, make sure you take the commonsense precautions above to stay safe.
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