Answer:

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).

However, this does not mean that there is no risk when flying. There have been several reports of passengers on long flights becoming infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

At the same time, there are many steps you can take to reduce the risk of infection when flying. These range from where to sit, how to use the overhead air nozzle, when to eat (if you must), and more.

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15 Comments

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Elliot21856
January 13, 2021

I have been using a portable air filter for years while seated on a plane. It has been highly effective in keeping me from catching a cold or flu. The two that I have are https://www.airtamer.com/products/personal-air-purifiers/a302-travel-air-purifier/ and a newer rechargeable unit https://www.ckitchen.com/p/aviair-travo-pur-air-mask.html

ConsumerLab.com
January 13, 2021

Thank you for sharing. However, you should be aware that both of these purifiers work by generating negative ions believed to cause air particles to repel each other. While this repulsion may cause the particles to travel away from your face, the particles will still land on other surfaces that could include your hands, clothes, or other nearby surfaces that you might touch. Furthermore, the first purifier (https://www.airtamer.com/products/personal-air-purifiers/a302-travel-air-purifier/) is noted as "not meeting California requirements," which may mean it generates ozone.

Robert21365
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..

eyal21857
January 13, 2021

100% right.
Yet, we flew numerous times last year (business class or up), applied common sense and so far so good ??

Robert21073
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.)

ConsumerLab.com
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.

Helen21199
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.

ConsumerLab.com
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.

Donald21335
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.

Susan21849
January 13, 2021

When I flew in the end of September, I also wore a small, personal "air purifier" device that creates negative ions, precipitating airborne particle which is supposed to help reduce your risk. In addition to a high efficiency mask, I did fine.

David21850
January 13, 2021

In addition to airplanes, there are often airports, car rentals and hotels involved. An investigation with these additional factors may give a better picture of the true risk to travel.

ConsumerLab.com
January 13, 2021

Personal air purifiers may reduce airborne particles, but many of these devices emit unsafe amounts of ozone directly into the breathing zone of the wearer (see our information about personal air purifiers for more details https://www.consumerlab.com/answers/portable-air-cleaner/air-purifier/#personalairpurifier).

Michael21859
January 13, 2021

I have to fly often for my job, most weekdays. I wear a proper mask (not a surgical mask or a cloth mask) and one of those cheap $1 face shields off ebay. I sanitize my hands after touching ANYTHING and hold my breath when an ID check is required. I do not eat on the plane, keeping my mask on at all times. It seems crazy to remove the mask in a confined space when a highly contagious airborne virus is present.

Ann21862
January 14, 2021

I was thinking of the same strategy, but for a long international flight to Europe... I can abstain from food easily, but no water seems like a bad idea health wise. I have not found a protected way to drink yet, any suggestion?

Pamela21896
January 19, 2021

I have not flown, but always prepare incase of emergency. I would wear two masks and goggles. I would NEVER EAT anything and only drink if needed, but would buy a bottle of water and not drink anything from the plane. It would be a nightmare to even do tsa or walk through an airport after seeing some of the people that don't believe in the virus on the news. It would only be a flight emergency. I pray for us all to get through this pandemic and received the proper vaccines in a timely manner, provided we receive support from Washington and intelligent guidance in our state of residency!

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