The risk of infection while flying is low, but wearing a face mask is an important part of the layered approach to safety – even a 747 freighter is now showcasing the importance of covering up!

26 August, 2020

It is very hard to change someone's opinion and unfortunately however hard airlines clarify that the environment on a modern airliner affords minimal risk of viral transmission many people will still continue to believe otherwise. Just like the many other so-called 'old wives tales' the supposed truth that dominates many opinions may have been based on historic stories or simply exaggerated and/or amended with inaccurate details.

Airlines have perhaps not been proactive previously at getting this message corrected. Why would they when aeroplanes were increasingly full. But a major global pandemic brings a revised view and has allowed them to now clarify that sitting on an aircraft does not mean you will be infected with every bug accompanying passengers are carrying.

In fact as the biggest global health crisis of modern times continues to dominate our daily lives airlines can now deliver strong evidence that there are very few cases of transmission, either to passengers or crews during air travel. As such it can really be defined that the risk of transmission while sat onboard a modern aircraft is rare.

There is also evidence to show that even on some long-haul, international repatriation flights where passengers either developed symptoms while onboard or were found to be positive for Covid-19 after they left the aircraft, there was no spread. In these cases contact tracing shows that no one else on those flights contracted the virus.

The air systems that many blamed for delivering a sniffly nose after returning on a long-haul flight are unknown to many actually delivering hospital-grade environments using HEPA filters that clean and refresh cabin air every three minutes and filter out some 95% or more of viruses, including the novel coronavirus. There are other factors at work in the cabin, among that - with the exception of modern business class cabins - most passengers are all facing forward, so seatbacks act as a natural barrier for transmission.

There are too many factors to mention, but just like personal precautions such washing our hands regularly and for at least 20 seconds, or avoiding touching our faces, a layered approach is an essential way of reducing the risk.

"Why doesn't the public understand this? That's a question for the airlines and those organisations that represent them," says Karen Walker, editor-in-chief of respected aviation publication Air Transport World.

"The industry has done a superb job - at significant cost and time - in putting safety first and quickly getting all these extra health measures in place. But, they have done a lousy job at communicating those efforts and the low transmission data to the very people who need to hear it: lawmakers, heads of medical organizations (like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the media and the general public," she explains.

The aircraft cabin may be a risk free environment, but wearing a mask adds another layer of protection and why it is currently a mandatory requirement. The wearing face coverings is a key recommendation of the International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO) guidance for safe operations during the pandemic, as developed jointly with the World Health Organization (WHO) and governments.

Like all requirements there are those that will flout the rules and we are seeing increasing reports via social media channels of flights being disrupted as individuals clash over the wearing of face coverings onboard an aircraft.

Airline body International Air Transport Association (IATA) is now emphasising the need for passengers to comply with the recommendation. It says that while reports of travellers refusing to wear a face covering during a flight "is confined to a very small number of individuals, some on-board incidents have become violent, resulting in costly and extremely inconvenient diversions to offload these passengers".

Failure to comply with the recommendation can jeopardise a flight's safety, disrupt the travel experience of other passengers and impact the work environment for crew. Alexandre de Juniac, IATA's director general and CEO calls for "common sense and taking responsibility" from all even though "a small minority" are creating problems. "Safety is at the core of aviation, and compliance with crew safety instructions is the law," he says.

A flight ticket is a contract under which the passenger agrees to the airline's terms and conditions of carriage and those include the airline's right to refuse carriage to a person whose behaviour interferes with a flight, violates government regulations or causes other passengers to feel unsafe. Failure to comply means that a passenger faces the risk of being offloaded from their flight, restrictions on future carriage or penalties under national laws.

"The research we have seen to date, and our own investigations with the world's airlines, tell us that the risk of catching Covid-19 on a flight remains very low," says IATA's medical advisor, Dr David Powell. According to tests, face coverings, when properly worn, can cut the forward spread of potential Covid-19 droplets from the mouth by 90% further reducing potential risk of spread in an aircraft's cabin. "This is not just about protecting yourself. It's about protecting everyone else on the flight," notes Dr Powell.

It is clear that we need to adapt to living with the threat of Covid-19 until a vaccine is widely available and mandatory mask wearing when we travel offers an additional level of protection. As wider testing becomes more standard then these recommendations may change and the Lufthansa Group is among the airlines to now advise that passenger can fly mask free from 01-Sep-2020 if they provide a negative coronavirus test and a medical certificate.

This may bring further confusion among travellers until it become more standard practice though. The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) has already called upon all travellers to don protective face masks to show they 'wear to care' in the new normal of travelling. After all even a Boeing 747 of a Luxembourg cargo airline is now proudly wearing one as flies around the world.