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Is It Truly Safe to Fly? COVID-19 Airplane Studies May Not Go Far Enough

Is It Truly Safe to Fly? COVID-19 Airplane Studies May Not Go Far Enough
Joe Cortez

As a whole, the aviation industry has provided a wealth of studies that suggest flying aboard a commercial aircraft presents a lower risk of contracting COVID-19 than other day-to-day activities. One MIT professor says that the studies may not have enough evidence to come to clear-cut solutions.

Numerous studies by aviation stakeholders all suggest that the risk co contracting COVID-19 from exposure on a flight is significantly low. While the research isn’t concrete, a familiar voice in the discussion is suggesting that there isn’t a wide enough data pool to jump to conclusions. In an editorial for The Hill, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Arnold Barnett says the release of information is more about trying to sell airfare than protecting flyers.

Professor Says Lack of Variety in Research Holds Key Flaw

Back in July 2020, Barnett was one of the first to provide a pre-print mathematical model on the spread of COVID-19 on an aircraft. While the odds of contracting the viral infection on a flight booked to capacity could be as high as 1-in-4,300, his initial modeling suggested that it could be reduced – but not eradicated – by mandating face covering usage.

In his editorial, he once again stands behind his model, while faulting airlines and other research for not going far enough to consider how flyers actually behave on a flight. For example: In the U.S. Department of Defense study conducted on United aircraft, the researchers concluded that wearing a face covering reduced aerosols expended from coughing by “99.99 percent.” Barnett rebukes the data based on the fact that the coughing dummies were stationary and the research was only conducted on widebody flights.

“The airlines discuss exercises with dummies on widebody jets, which have suggested the transmission of the coronavirus is minimal,” Barnett writes in The Hill. “But they do not mention recent papers in medical journals that report the cases of actual passengers.”

The professor cites three research papers, each suggesting that it’s very possible to pass COVID-19 to other passengers aboard aircraft. The first, published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, discussed a flight where a flyer who had COVID-19 spread the virus to 12 other passengers who all sat in the business cabin together. The second, published in the same journal, noted 11 passengers contracted COVID-19 on an intra-Australian flight from Sydney to Perth. The final was published by the JAMA Network Open, and discussed a flight where a group of tourists exposed a flight to COVID-19 without knowledge of having the viral infection.

Instead of trusting the current research, the professor instead criticizes the United States’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying that “protocols in general have in general been so weak.” While he does not dispute that face coverings help reduce the odds of contracting COVID-19, Barnett does attack the airlines for allegedly spinning pandemic conditions to fit their narrative.

“American airlines are financially desperate. They are trying to make their planes safe for passengers,” Barnett writes. “But they have no excuse for making difficult promises about the “nearly nonexistent” coronavirus risk.”

Criticisms Continue for COVID-19 Risk Aboard Commercial Flights

The editorial is not the first time a researcher has spoken out about presented results on COVID-19. Earlier in 2020, a study author would not lend his name to a data set presented by the International Air Transportation Association (IATA), saying at the time their results used “bad math.”

View Comments (10)


  1. OZFLYER86

    November 4, 2020 at 8:09 pm

    to much talk of catching corona.

    Catching it IS NOT a death sentence, unless maybe you’re in a vulnerable group.

    No need to wear a mask in Australia, ANYWHERE !!!!!

  2. stablemate77

    November 4, 2020 at 8:33 pm

    if you dont take risk then no rewards just back from cross country on aa 9 days plane full mask was ok to breath at altitude service limited

  3. GMurphy

    November 5, 2020 at 4:39 am

    And this:

    I’d probably still fly if I could, but would be super cautious about my hygiene measures on board and in the airport. Also think nobody should be allowed to fly without a mask.

  4. LordDenton

    November 5, 2020 at 6:11 am

    Did the airline study have a removal of the face mask for half an hour from the dummies to emulate passengers eating food? Did they also leave a couple of dummies with the mask partially worn and the nose sticking out? I feel like the study is not really based on the reality we see in the cabin.

  5. Loren Pechtel

    November 5, 2020 at 8:01 am

    Of course. The industry research looks at the best conditions and concludes the risk is minimal. Real world conditions aren’t anything like as good as the best conditions, though.

  6. DEN

    November 5, 2020 at 8:29 am

    As my dad used to say, never let the Fox count the number of chickens in the henhouse…..

  7. formeraa

    November 5, 2020 at 9:25 am

    I have long held any comments by Arnie Barnett in high regard. His counterpoint to the “published” data is always an excellent read, based on fact.

  8. BSpeaker

    November 5, 2020 at 10:18 am

    Has it EVER been “SAFE” to fly? I was on a flight to SE Asia many years ago and it turned out someone on the plane had something nasty akin to Typhoid Fever or something equally bad. We were all sniffling and coughing by the time it landed. Thankfully, I’ve always been cautious and had wrapped myself in a blanket I brought with me, and was using a disinfecting spray and hand wipes on everything before, during, and after the flight. I only had a mild case of whatever it was.

    I think a lot of this is overblown. You have never known from whence your seatmates come, you have never known who they were with or what they have come in contact with. Either we are grownups who make good health decisions for ourselves and take appropriate cautions, or we are all toddlers who need to have our hands held and every conceivable threat mitigated. I prefer the grownup route.

    I find it fascinating that seasoned travelers had to be told to wash their hands, carry disinfecting wipes, not cough on others, clean your drop down tray, and be mindful of health issues. Good LORD. What has happened to us? Are we now going to destroy the travel, meetings, restaurant, and tourist industries for a disease that has a 99.67% recovery rate? We never would have survived in the 1800’s!!

    Just be smart! Don’t be paranoid! Do a little research!

  9. airb330

    November 10, 2020 at 8:24 pm

    Delete the Corona deniers posts…

    Glad this is being studied but as others have said, it doesn’t account for eating, drinking, and the stupidity of others (mask below nose, etc).

  10. Long Zhiren

    November 17, 2020 at 10:07 pm

    It’s a lot safer now then before. Not so many filthy sick coughing & medicated passengers now. That’s the way it should be.

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