I haven’t flown since February, which is by far the longest I’ve gone in my adult life. Prior to this pandemic the longest I’d gone without stepping on a plane was just weeks, maybe a month. I’ve averaged 50+ flights a year for decades, so staying grounded isn’t something I want to do.
However, I have two little kids at home and a history of asthma, so it’s the prudent choice. I’ve canceled over two dozen trips in the past six months (like this once-in-a-lifetime trip with my best friend), and many of them were with my wife and kids, including a dream trip to the island of Maui. But one of the biggest reasons I haven’t flown—besides the fact that there aren’t many places Americans can go without a mandatory 14-day quarantine—is that many doctors say it’s not safe to fly (more: Would Doctors Travel During the COVID-19 Pandemic?).
That said, like most people I haven’t been sure exactly what “not safe” means. I know that plane air is relatively clean, especially after a conference call with Boeing about how the company is advising its customers (the airlines) and the general public regarding the best ways to keep COVID-19 off of planes. Importantly, modern commercial planes are equipped with HEPA filters. Use of these filters, especially on the ground, too, as United has made its practice, tell me that as long as you’re not sitting near someone that has COVID-19 (I know, that’s a big IF), and that you follow the general safety guidelines (wear a mask, wipe down your seat, don’t touch your face…), you can feel confident that you won’t get it. And yet doctors still advise against non-essential flying, and I feel sure that however elevated the risk is it’s not one I’m comfortable taking yet. So what exactly are the odds of catching COVID-19 on a plane?
What are the odds of catching COVID-19 on a plane?
As I read this week in a new Bloomberg piece written by Faye Flam, “Arnold Barnett, a professor of management science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been trying to quantify the odds of catching Covid-19 from flying.” And he’s come up with a few estimates. According to his not-yet-peer-reviewed results:
- The odds of catching COVID-19 on a two-hour flight that’s full are 1 in 4,300
- The odds of catching COVID-19 on a two-hour flight on which all middle seats are left empty are 1 in 7,700
- The odds of catching COVID-19 on a flight and then dying as a result are between 1 in 400,000 and 1 in 600,000, depending on your age and other risk factors. (“To put that in perspective, those odds are comparable to the average risk of getting a fatal case in a typical two hours on the ground.”)
In coming up with these numbers, Flam writes, Barnett “factored in a bunch of variables, including the odds of being seated near someone in the infectious stage of the disease, and the odds that the protection of masks (now required on most flights) will fail” as well as “accounted for the way air is constantly renewed in airplane cabins, which experts say makes it very unlikely you’ll contract the disease from people who aren’t in your immediate vicinity — your row, or, to a lesser extent, the person across the aisle, the people ahead of you or the people behind you.”
These odds should be treated with a grain of salt and I don’t see how they can even be right but it’s interesting to see his thought on risk put into numbers. Also interestingly, Barnett himself told Flam that “he wouldn’t fly right now because his age, 72, puts him at higher risk than the average American.” He also added that “you have to consider the risk of adding to the problem by getting the virus and unknowingly passing it on to others.” Flam investigates further in the Bloomberg piece, which is worth a read in full.
What do you think?
Are the odds of catching COVID-19 on plane that Barnett came up with higher or lower than you expected? Do they change how you feel about flying right now? Please let me know in the comments below!
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