Oct 18, 2020
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A new study conducted for the Department of Defense adds credence to the growing belief that airline passengers face minimal risk of contracting coronavirus when flying.
The study found the risk of aerosol dispersion – transmission of the virus through the air – was reduced 99.7% thanks to high air exchange rates, HEPA-filtered recirculation and downward ventilation found on modern jets.
Investigators looked at the impact of an infected passenger on others seated in the same row and those nearby in the cabins of Boeing 767s and 777s. Those two aircraft types are widebodies typically used for long-haul flights where a virus would be expected to spread more easily.
To test the exposure risk for passengers sitting near an infected person, researchers released fluorescent tracer aerosols representing the droplets released by exhaling or coughing and looked at the impact on multiple "breathing zones" throughout the aircraft. In total, more than 11,500 breathing zone seat measurements were taken with releases from 46 different seats.
Asked about the report Thursday during a call with analysts and media, United CEO Scott Kirby said the results apply to other commercial jets as well.
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"The reality is those tests are indicative of what happens on every airplane. An aircraft is just a remarkably safe environment."
The study was conducted by a team that included members from United Airlines, Boeing, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, National Strategic Research Institute and research firms. It was prepared for two military agencies that move people and cargo, the U.S. Transportation Command and the Air Force's Air Mobility Command.