Safe Passage: COVID-19 & Air Travel

In contrast to cruise ships, airliners have not proven to be hot beds for COVID-19 infections, and experts say it's because of unique airflow patterns on planes. KING's Glenn Farley reports.

(NBC News) — In contrast to cruise ships, airliners have not proven to be hot beds for COVID-19 infections.

The International Air Transport Association claims that just 44 people have become infected with COVID-19 while on board an airplane since the pandemic began hitting the industry in early 2020.

In its survey of potential passengers, people are split between thinking the air inside jets is as clean as a hospital, or dangerous. The biggest fear is sitting next to someone who’s coughing.

Boeing, Airbus and Brazil’s Embraer all made pitches to international media on what their research was finding that makes flying safer than what many people think. And the results between all three are comparable.

First, air entering the cabin comes from the top, flows down to the floor, and is sucked out through vents at your feet. They say that limits buoyancy of any droplets or aerosols that may contain the virus. Once that air is sucked in, it’s mixed with fresh air from outside the plane passing through a MERV 17 or higher filter, capable of capturing a virus particle the size of COVID. Air is fully replaced in the cabin every two to three minutes with warmed air from outside.

“Some droplets will still go through, and that will be stopped by the mask of the person who is breathing,” says Bruno Fargeon, Engineering Director for Airbus’ Keep Trust in Air Travel initiative. Fargeon, citing Airbus research, said that 10,000 particles were reduced to just five particles before a passenger could breathe it in, even if somebody sitting next to you coughs.

While that is an astounding reduction, from 10,000 particles to just five in tests, it also shows why the manufacturers say masks are still important as a last line of defense, in what is a multi-layered approach to safety, and why the risk is not absolute zero.

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