Why Flying is Safer Than Grocery Shopping During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Yes, that title is correct. Flying is safer than grocery shopping during this global pandemic. How could flying on a plane, the main cause for the spread of COVID-19, be safer than grocery shopping? It may seem unbelievable, but it’s true. Even the thought of flying during the pandemic may terrify many people, but rest assured, the risk of contracting COVID-19 on an aircraft is significantly lower than the risk of contracting the virus from simple daily activities such as shopping in a store or eating in a restaurant.

Credit: Getty Images

To understand this phenomenon, one must first understand how air flows through an aircraft. At first thought, many people may think that air flows horizontally through a plane, from front to back. However, the truth is actually the opposite: Air flows vertically through a plane, moving up and down. Air flows from a vent above the seat into a lower compartment of a plane where a filtering system is located. The air is filtered out every 2 to 3 minutes using a high-efficiency particulate air filter, otherwise known as a HEPA filter, one of the most effective filtering systems in the world.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an organization made up of 290 airline companies across 120 different countries, “HEPA filters are effective at capturing greater than 99 percent of the airborne microbes in the filtered air… Virtually all viruses and bacteria are removed; even the most difficult particles in the range of 0.1 to 0.3 micron are filtered out with an efficiency level of 99.995%.” To confirm this, several experts at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a study using computer models to analyze the airflow in aircraft cabins and found these claims to be true. This shows that the filtering system in a plane is more than capable of filtering out virus particles such as COVID-19, since it filters close to 100% of the air every 2 to 3 minutes. On top of the HEPA filter, clean air from the outside is also passed into the cabin through the engines. This means that the air quality on a plane is exceptionally fresh and cleaner than almost all indoor spaces.

Credit: AeroTime. How air flows through an aircraft.

To even further ensure the safety of passengers, the United States Department of Defense and United Airlines conducted a six-month-long experiment to test the effectiveness of the specialized HEPA filter on airplanes. To conduct their experiment, a mannequin was placed on the aircraft, releasing around 180 million particles every test, the amount equivalent to the number of particles released from thousands of coughs. Sensors were placed on each seat of the plane, simulating the scenario of a plane at its full capacity. After 300 tests, the study found that “there is only a 0.003% chance particles from a passenger can enter the passenger’s breathing space who is sitting beside them” and that “99.99% of those particles left the interior of the aircraft within six minutes” (Benitez and Sweeney, 2020).

The results from this experiment were absolutely astonishing: They showed that passengers are highly unlikely to be in contact with the air someone else is breathing, even if that person is in the seat next to the passenger. United Airlines even stated that the possibility of getting COVID-19 on an aircraft is “virtually non-existent.” In fact, the probability is so low that the IATA classifies it “in the same category as being struck by lightning.” This means that travelling on a plane during the pandemic is safer than almost all daily activities, even eating.

Credit: United Airlines.
Department of Defense along with United Airlines conducting a test to study the dispersal of air particles throughout an aircraft.
Credit: United Airlines.

Even after all of this, airlines are still taking additional precautions to ensure the safety of their passengers. An example of this is how airlines are currently requiring passengers to wear masks for the entire duration of a flight and deep cleaning the airplane before each flight. Some airlines are even practicing social distancing on a plane by blocking out certain seats. Masks prevent particles in the mouth from being dispensed into the air, therefore significantly reducing the probability of a virus particle from entering the air, which is something that most people should be familiar with by now.

To even further emphasize the safety of flying, it should be considered that all of these tests and precautions were done under the assumption that someone on the plane was infected with the virus, which is a restriction in which an airline won’t let the passenger onboard. Before checking in now, many airlines require passengers to comply with a survey, showing that they haven’t displayed symptoms of the virus for 14 days. Some airlines even require a negative coronavirus test. With these precautions to ensure someone infected with the virus doesn’t enter the aircraft, the probability of contracting the virus on a plane is probably even lower.

Credit: Delta Airlines. Delta Airlines check-in policy

Without a doubt, flying during the global pandemic is exceedingly safe since all current aircraft are equipped with a highly effective air filtration system that filters out almost 100% of the air every few minutes along with fresh air from the outside and prevents other people’s air from infiltrating one’s own breathing space. Airlines also enforce the rule of wearing masks for the entire duration of the flight, which severely reduces the amount of particles released from a person’s mouth. And even if someone’s mouth particles do escape their mask, those particles will not likely contain the virus, as passengers who enter the aircraft should not have the virus. With all these layers of protection and steps to ensure the safety of passengers, flying is one of the safest activities to do during the pandemic, and one can confidently assert that flying is safer than grocery shopping.

Works Cited (APA):

Benitez, G., & Sweeney, S. (2020). Risk of COVID-19 exposure on planes ‘virtually nonexistent’ when masked, study shows. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/risk-covid-19-exposure-planes-virtually-nonexistent-masked/story?id=73616599. 

Muntean, P., & Wallace, G. (2020, October 27). Flying can be safer than grocery shopping, Harvard study asserts. CNN. http://www.cnn.com/travel/article/flying-covid-19-harvard-study-wellness/index.html. 

(2018, January) Cabin air quality – Risk of communicable diseases transmission. IATA. https://www.iata.org/contentassets/f1163430bba94512a583eb6d6b24aa56/cabin-air-quality.pdf