Why Do You Think Flying Is Safe During The COVID-19 Crisis?

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Credit: Aviation Week Network

Ask the Editors: The Aviation Week Network invites our readers to submit questions to our editors and analysts. We’ll answer them, and if we can’t we’ll reach out to our wide network of experts for advice. 

On the May 29 Aviation Week Webinar, I was surprised to hear that your editors are convinced flying is safe during the COVID-19 crisis. I haven’t seen any doctors who share that opinion. It would be interesting to understand how the airplane’s air filtration system is going to keep you from getting infected if you are sitting for several hours next to, or even close to, a passenger who has COVID-19. I have yet to see a single airline explain that. If that isn’t a risk, IATA should be promoting why as broadly as possible—and get us all back to work. 

Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief Karen Walker responds: 

Emirates Airline President Tim Clark addressed this question in some part on our June 2 Air Transport webinar. He explained that the very high-quality HEPA filters with which almost all modern airliners are equipped filter out 98% of particles, including the coronavirus. The International Air Transport Association’s research and its hygiene specialist, a scientist, indicate that they believe this is a major factor for the very low number of cases (almost none) of virus transmissions where it was later discovered someone onboard was infected and the entire set of passengers and crew on that flight were traced and tested.

There is also a line of thought that the rows of seatbacks act as a “containment” barrier and, of course, even when sitting next to each other, passengers do not touch their seat neighbor unless that person is a friend or relative. 

I have long said that airliners are much cleaner than the average restaurant, bar, club or gas station, and that is even more the case today with the additional disinfections that are taking place between and during flights.

I realize that people may feel more comfortable in the current environment having an empty seat between them and the next passenger, but the truth is that you will still be well inside the 6-ft. distancing standard on the average narrowbody economy cabin. So that empty seat isn’t buying you any additional hygiene safety, but it will ultimately lead to higher airfares because airline economics are not sustainable if the carrier can only fly at 60% load factors. More airlines going bust equals less competition equals higher fares.

Clark made a very good point in the webinar, I think, about Emirates providing each passenger with a “health kit” containing masks, gloves and sanitizing wipes. Even though the airline is thoroughly disinfecting its aircraft and assigning dedicated onboard cleaners, these kits give people a sense of individual security. That’s what it will take to persuade people to fly once quarantines are lifted.

Meanwhile, the International Civil Aviation Organization announced its set of aviation hygiene guidelines on June 2. If those are widely adopted around the world, they also may help increase confidence, unless and until people just get fed up with all the inconvenience.

Karen Walker

Karen Walker is Air Transport World Editor-in-Chief and Aviation Week Network Group Air Transport Editor-in-Chief. She joined ATW in 2011 and oversees the editorial content and direction of ATW, Routes and Aviation Week Group air transport content.


1 Comment
with all these tremendous impacts on the air transport sector, as well as on society as a whole, it is important to promptly deal with the Covid-19 effects indeed. But it's even more important to deal with the sources of this crisis, which however seems to be forgotten or ignored as priority. Is there any initiative from the air transport sector to urge governments or international bodies to address this priority?