How safe is flying in the corona era?

Crew and passengers wearing facmasks in the corona eraAirlines say it is safe to fly, but only under strict conditions. They have announced measures to prevent that passengers contract the coronavirus. An example is a requirement for passengers and crew to wear face masks in the corona era. Possible measures on the ground include sanitizing kiosks, counters, etc.

Layered measures

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the airline industry’s worldwide lobby, recommends “layered measures.” This term is quite popular among carriers because it suggests more safety than they provide in practice.

Blocking middle seats

Strikingly, IATA doesn’t recommend blocking middle seats “because the risk of transmission of the coronavirus from passenger to passenger on board is very low.” But Robert Crandall, a former boss of American Airlines, calls this claim “nonsense as atmospheric inhalation is the primary means of transmission.”

Trumpian arguments

Robert Crandall

Obviously, IATA uses Trumpian, thus baseless arguments. The argument that infection on board is unlikely, sounds better than saying that blocking middle seats is too expensive for airlines. IATA’s next recommendation might be that airlines can save on cost by removing safety belts because an airline accident is unlikely.


IATA also touts the air quality on board thanks to the use of Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters. They invariably point out that those filters are also used in hospital operating rooms. So far, however, there is no unambiguous proof that HEPA filters protect passengers from the coronavirus.

No social distancing

Despite all the talking, social distancing is simply impossible in aircraft. Scott Kirby, the new boss of United Airlines, admits in a call with investors that “you can’t be 6 feet apart on an airplane.” This is exactly the reason why it is very doubtful whether flying is safe from a health perspective.

Queue for lavatories

Dr. Joshua Schiffer, infectious-disease physician at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center

Dr. Joshua Schiffer

Ryanair is planning to introduce a very unusual new policy by prohibiting passengers to queue for lavatories during flight. It will grant toilet access to individual passengers upon request. This might prevent infections, but it also might be just a trial kite.


By way of conclusion we cite Dr. Joshua Schiffer, an infectious-disease physician at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “It’s next to impossible to have complete confidence you won’t get infected on flights.” But he hopes that carriers will provide travelers “publicly available information on what the projected risk would be to a certain destination, so that you can choose your airline based on the quality of this information.”

Related: Coronavirus on board

Tags: coronavirus, blocking middle seats, onboard air quality

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