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MIT Professor: Flights Booked to Capacity May Present 1-in-4,300 Chance of Contracting COVID-19


A new pre-print thesis from an MIT professor suggests a flyers could face a reduced risk of getting COVID-19, even of the aircraft is booked to capacity. Using an equation model, the odds of catching COVID-19 from a flight booked to capacity may be 1-in-4,300, while flying with an empty middle seat could reduce those odds to 1-in-7,700.

For those concerned about airlines booking to capacity, a new model suggests chances of contracting the novel Coronavirus may be low when aboard an aircraft. A pre-print study submitted by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor suggests the chances of catching the viral infection from middle-seat flyers could be low — but flying with an empty seat between flyers may reduce it even further.

An Emphasis On “Rough” Numbers for Full Flights

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts continually asked the public to wash hands, wear facemasks and social distance by at least six feet wherever possible. To those ends, airlines have instituted mandatory face mask policies on all flights, but are split on appropriate social distancing measures.

A 2020 CarTrawler/Ideaworks study found that while Delta Airlines, Southwest Airlines and JetBlue were committed to blocking middle seats to promote health measures, American Airlines, Spirit Airlines and United Airlines were booking flights to capacity. Does blocking middle seats actually promote social distancing on aircraft?

According to Arnold Barnett, the George Eastman professor of management science and statistics at the MIT Sloan School of Management, the odds may not change significantly in either case. In a pre-print thesis, his math suggests that flyers may not face an overall severe risk of getting Coronavirus from sitting on a commercial flight.

“Answering that question [the effectiveness of social distancing on aircraft] entails major complications and uncertainties, which can easily lead one to throw up one’s hands,” Barnett writes. “But even a rough approximation of the risks at issue seems preferable to clashes of unsubstantiated conjectures. This paper strives for such an approximation, with an emphasis on the word ‘rough.’

Using an equation that take into consideration new Coronavirus infections by state, face mask usage aboard aircraft and passenger load, Barnett suggests that the risk of contracting COVID-19 from full flights could be as high as 1-in-4,300. When the middle seat isn’t booked, that risk could drop to 1-in-7,700.

“These estimates imply COVID-19 mortality risks to uninfected air travelers are considerably higher than those associated with plane crashes,” Barnett writes in the study abstract. “But probably less than one in 500,000.”

Early Report Still Requires Review

While Barnett’s report presents a “rough” view of risk, the report is incomplete. First, the professor acknowledges that the equation model only considers contact between those on airplanes. The report does not consider 2019’s average aircraft load factor of 85.1 percent, or the odds of coming in contact with someone who may have COVID-19 during boarding, deplaning, or in a lavatory. The equation model also assumes everyone on a flight will wear a mask, and does not take into account talking or other social activities while flying.

Moreover, the paper is still in pre-print phase, and has not been certified through peer review. The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which hosts the pre-print server where the study was published, warns studies “…should not be relied on to guide clinical practice or health-related behavior and should not be reported in news media as established information.”

FlyerTalk does not consider this pre-print study as “established information,” and may revise this story after the paper goes through peer review.

But if Barnett’s math is upheld, the professor suggests that there could be a lower risk of contracting COVID-19 if middle seats remain open through the pandemic. It remains unclear how much of that risk could be reduced, and if the chances of “…getting infected during a flight is any higher than the risk associated with everyday activities during the pandemic.”

“The calculations here, however rudimentary, do suggest a measurable reduction in COVID-19 risk when middle seats on aircraft are deliberately kept open,” Barnett writes. “The question is whether relinquishing 1/3 of seating capacity is too high a price to pay for the added precaution.”

carlosdca July 24, 2020

Besides what everybody has commented, to add insult to injury, we are getting the paraphrased version by Joe Cortez (the author of this article), which then turns this into completely fake news, as we don't know how much of Joe Cortez biases are incorporated in the article. Personally, I want to see a different study My non-peer reviewed study tells me that: - The current air-traveler is: 1) someone that HAS to fly for work and has to interact with lots of random people. Therefore, their chance of having COVID is 100 times higher than someone that works from home and only goes out to the grocery store. 2) someone that believes he won't get it. And just as they are flying planes, they are also participating in multi family back yard parties, religious services, etc. or someone that is going to a county where restaurants and bars are open, and is probably very bad at social distancing and wearing masks. This one has covid. 3) someone that had a family need (taking care of aging parent in another city, split custody families, etc) and unfortunately has to comingle with lots of strangers. Higher risk of covid. etc. So, according to my study, the probability of someone having Covid in a plane is MUCH higher than that of the average population. Therefore, the MIT study referenced above is absolute CRAP.

hedoman July 24, 2020

And the survey says.....after reading these comments, 1 in 2500 chance of people with a brain buying into anything this paper is selling.

talkandfly July 19, 2020

For those of you who feel they know all the facts, I am happy you sleep well at night. For those of us dealing with this illness every day, we don't sleep so well. It is really too bad this has become so politicized. That, fellow FTers, is why we are having so many issues. Fact, while most people who get infected, even in the high-risk groups, do get over the acute infection, many are left with long-term consequences including lung, kidney, heart, brain and muscle problems. There are many more of these folks than there are folks who have died. The understanding of the consequences is still evolving. Fact, local health care systems are being overwhelmed. In our community, hospitals are full and a significant portion of the beds are occupied by Covid patients. Fact, just as happened in NYC a few months ago, in our community, morgues are filling and refrigerated trucks are starting to be recruited for overflow. If you need to travel, do so with a great deal of thought. Protect yourself. Protect others around you. Even if you do not believe the severity of the issue, at least practice courtesy by respecting the fear or caution or common sense (you decide) of those around you.

glob99 July 18, 2020

Here is a thought experiment on the effectiveness of an aircraft's HVAC system. If a person smoked a cigarette at his/her seat how many people around the smoker would smell the cigarette smoke? The stronger the smell, the greater the chance of infection.

Gizzabreak July 17, 2020

"... 1:4300 ..." to "... 1:7700 ..." Sounds better than 'on the street odds' ... at least in some cities/countries. Maybe the long term solution will be to issue everyone with their own aircraft.