By Cecilia Rodriguez, 23 SEP 2020
Two studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have added to concerns over the risk of COVID-19 contagion on planes — especially during long-haul flights — and are drawing intense media attention.
There’s no disagreement that international travel has contributed to the global spread of coronavirus, nor that airports and planes are zones of higher risk given that passengers of all origins are forced together into closed spaces.
Long flights, according to the CDC, have the potential “to cause COVID-19 clusters of substantial size, even in business class-like settings with spacious seating arrangements well beyond the established distance used to define close contact on airplanes.”
The CDC has documented that some 11,000 passengers potentially have been exposed to coronavirus on flights in the U.S.
At the same time, international airlines have been emphatic in their assurances that greater protection and safety of passengers are top priorities and that despite the publicity surrounding the CDC studies, the risks of infection in planes are extremely low considering the number of international flights operating now.
Time for testing at all airports
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), for its part, insists that despite the high-profile CDC studies, the data collected so far indicates that the risk of transmission is low in light of the number of flights that have taken place internationally during the pandemic.
To help restore confidence in air travel, the trade body is calling for the development and deployment of rapid, accurate, affordable, easy-to-operate, scalable and systematic COVID-19 testing for all passengers before departure.
IATA will work through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and with health authorities to implement this solution quickly, according to the International Airport
“International travel is down by 92% when compared to 2019 levels. Over half a year has passed since global connectivity was destroyed as countries closed their borders to fight COVID-19. Some governments have cautiously re-opened borders since then, but there has been limited uptake as a result of either quarantine measures making travel impractical or the frequent changes in COVID-19 measures making planning impossible.”
Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s CEO, said that “the key to restoring the freedom of mobility across borders is systematic COVID-19 testing of all travelers before departure. This will give governments the confidence to open their borders without complicated risk models that see constant changes in the rules imposed on travel. Testing all passengers will give people back their freedom to travel with confidence. And that will put millions of people back to work.”
According to the association, the economic cost of the breakdown in global connectivity makes investing in a border-opening testing solution a priority for governments. The human suffering and global economic pain of the crisis will be prolonged if the aviation industry — on which at least 65.5 million jobs depend — collapses before the pandemic ends.
And the amount of government support needed to avert such a collapse is rising.
Already lost revenues are expected to exceed $400 billion after the industry was set to post a record net loss of more than $80 billion in 2020 under a more optimistic rebound scenario than has actually unfolded.
“Safety is aviation’s top priority,” de Juniac insisted. “We are the safest form of transport because we work together as an industry with governments to implement global standards. With the economic cost associated with border closures rising daily and a second wave of infections taking hold, the aviation industry must call on this expertise to unite with governments and medical testing providers to find a rapid, accurate, affordable, easy-to-operate, and scalable testing solution that will enable the world to safely re-connect and recover.”
Polling by IATA finds strong support for COVID-19 air travel testing, with 65% of travelers surveyed agreeing that quarantine should not be required if a person tests negative for COVID-19.
- 84% agreed that testing should be required of all travelers
- 88% agreed that they are willing to undergo testing as part of the travel process
In addition to opening borders, public opinion research also indicated that testing will help to rebuild passenger confidence in aviation.
Who to believe?
The CDC research is based on flights flown in March when travel security measures related to the coronavirus pandemic were not yet completely in place. Airlines are now requiring all passengers and crew aboard flights to wear masks. Also, many airlines have been flying their planes at reduced capacity, blocking off middle seats in order to create more distance between passengers.
A number of other measures at airports and on planes have been implemented in recent weeks and since the CDC studies were conductyed to protect passengers and employees.
Among those measures are the establishment of mobil check-in, contactless self-service baggage drop-off at airports, use of hand sanitizers, modified airport security and screening (which have added time to the boarding process), only one piece of hand luggage per passenger allowed on the plane, obligatory masks at airports and during flights (except for eating) and coronavirus testing booths in some airports.
“On long haul flights, we recommend you to bring several masks so that you can switch if necessary (once they get damp),” advises Lufthansa, for example.
Some airlines hand out disinfectant wipes to clean the surfaces in and around the seat, although the frequency and intensity of cabin cleanings have been increased and the air filter supplies give “a complete exchange of fresh air approximately every three minutes, insuring excellent air quality.”
The worrisome CDC studies
One of the CDC studies, published in the last issue of the Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal looked into the transmission of COVID-19 among passengers, crew and their closest contacts on a 10-hour commercial flight from London to Vietnam.
“We traced 217 passengers and crew to their final destinations and interviewed, tested, and quarantined them,” the researchers explain. “Among the 16 persons in whom SARS-CoV-2 infection was detected, 12 (75%) were passengers seated in business class along one symptomatic person (attack rate 62%).”
“In-flight transmission that probably originated from one symptomatic passenger caused a large cluster of cases during the long flight.”
The study warns that the risk of coronavirus on such long flights is real: “The most likely route of transmission during the flight is aerosol or droplet transmission.”
The other CDC study looked at two passengers and two flight attendants on a 15-hour flight from Boston to Hong Kong who afterwards tested positive for COVID-19.
“Their virus genetic sequences are identical, unique, and belong to a (group of organisms) not previously identified in Hong Kong, which strongly suggests that the virus was transmitted during air travel,” the study says.
“Spread of SARS-CoV-2 across international borders by infected travelers has been well documented; however, evidence and in-depth assessment of the risk for transmission from infected passengers to other passengers or crew members during the course of a flight (in-flight transmission) are limited.
Although the international flight industry has judged the risk for in-flight transmission to be very low, long flights in particular have become a matter of increasing concern as many countries have started lifting flight restrictions despite ongoing SARS-CoV-2 transmission.”