Evidence suggests that the risk of transmission on board aircraft is low. For example, contact tracing for a flight from China to Canada with a symptomatic COVID-19 passenger revealed no onboard transmission and the same was true for a flight between China and the United States with 12 symptomatic COVID-19 passengers.
Mask-wearing by passengers and crew, however, will add a level of protection, while avoiding the dramatic cost increases to air travel that onboard social distancing measures would bring.
“The safety of passengers and crew is paramount,” said Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO. “We must arrive at a solution that gives passengers the confidence to fly and keeps the cost of flying affordable. One without the other will have no lasting benefit.”
In addition to face coverings, IATA recommends layers of temporary biosecurity measures to include:
- Temperature screening of passengers, airport workers and travelers
- Boarding and deplaning processes that reduce contact with other passengers or crew
- Limiting movement within the cabin during flight
- More frequent and deeper cabin cleaning
- Simplified catering procedures that lower crew movement and interaction with passengers.
When proven and available at scale, testing for COVID-19 or immunity passports could also be included as temporary biosecurity measures.
There are several plausible reasons why COVID-19, which is spread primarily by respiratory droplets, has not resulted in more onboard transmission, and why air travel is different from other modes of public transport. Passengers face forward with limited face-to-face interactions and seats provide an effective barrier to transmission, Moreover, air flow from ceiling to floor further reduces the potential for spreading the virus while High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters on modern aircraft clean cabin air to hospital operating theater quality.
IATA is conducting an ongoing examination of contact tracing of 1,100 passengers (during the January to March 2020 period) who were confirmed for COVID-19 after air travel. As of 6 May this exercise has not revealed any secondary transmission among the more than 100,000 passengers on the same flights. Just two possible cases were found among crew members.
Even if mandated, keeping the middle seat open will not achieve the recommended separation for social distancing to be effective. Most authorities recommend 1m-2m while the average seat width is less than 50 cm.
“In the immediate term, our aim is to make the cabin environment even safer with effective measures so that passengers and crew can return to travel with confidence,” said de Juniac.
The long-term solutions for COVID-19 depend on medical science. “We need a vaccine, an immunity passport or an effective COVID-19 test that can be administered at scale,” de Juniac continued. “Work on all of these is promising. But none will be realized before we will need to restart the industry. That’s why we must be ready with a series of measures, the combination of which will reduce the already low risk of inflight transmission. And we must be careful not to hardwire any solution so we can be quick in adopting more efficient measures as they will undoubtedly become available.”