The risk of contracting COVID-19 during air travel is low according to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Pombal, JAMA 2020) authored by medical experts from the aviation industry. The reason given is that modern airplanes circulate a mix of fresh air and air recycled through HEPA filters and the air flow comes down from above and exits through outlets in the floor (see diagram).

This does not mean that there is no risk when flying and, regardless of aircraft ventilation, your risk is certainly higher should an infectious person be seated near or next to you, and airlines differ in their policies regarding filling middle seats. In addition, although face masks are required to be worn by passengers and crew aboard all airlines, this is not being consistently enforced.

However, as noted in the article, there are steps you can take to help you stay safe and protect others:
  • Don't travel if you feel unwell
  • Limit carry-on baggage
  • Wear a mask (an N95 respirator, if you have one, will protect you more than a face mask)
  • Point the overhead air nozzle straight at your head and keep it on full
  • Stay seated if possible
  • Follow crew instructions
  • Wash or sanitize your hands frequently
  • Avoid touching your face
The use of a face shield is not listed among the suggested steps, but having one available to wear would seem prudent should a passenger be seated to your left or right. Limiting conversation with others would also seem wise.

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November 18, 2020

The risk calculation involved more than the potential for in-flight transmission. It involves the risk in crowded airports, airport restrooms, the un-ventilated corridors for boarding and deplaning. and time spent in the aircraft while on the ground..

October 4, 2020

Two of the three authors of the JAMA article are airline employees and the third has been paid by an airline trade group. (As reported in the article's Conflict of Interest Disclosures.)
October 7, 2020

Yes, we noticed that when we initially wrote about the article, but you've prompted us to mention this in our article. Thank you.

October 21, 2020

There’s also no mention of the dilemma to remove any protective gear to eat or drink which is where I believe the risk increases—especially as the passengers are doing this at the same time and often not repositioning their mask.
October 21, 2020

Yes, this a risk and it has also been pointed out in Comments posted on JAMA to the mentioned article. It is not clear to what extent this was factored into the analysis in the article. If someone near you who is not in your "pod" takes off their mask to eat or drink, it would seem prudent to keep your own protective gear on until they are done.

November 14, 2020

I've heard that travelers can apply to be exempt from wearing a face mask on planes if they have respiratory problems/difficulties. On a flight this summer, I actually witnessed a passenger telling a flight attendant that he applied online for the exemption because he has asthma and that was why he refused to wear a mask. He was allowed to stay on the flight.

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