November 01, 2020

Flyers can breath easier about infection risk

There's a pandemic going on, but you need to fly across the country. Maybe it's for medical care or to see a newborn grandchild. You're nervous that a long flight is a ripe environment for transmitting viruses and disease.

The concern is justified. However, for those who must fly, recent research indicates that in-flight infection risk may not be higher than it is elsewhere.

Although the virus that causes COVID-19 is too new to have been studied extensively in the setting of an airplane, a 2018 study found that the risk of catching a respiratory virus on a plane is low unless you're within 3 feet of an infected person. That study — and other recent studies related to outbreaks on long flights — occurred before face masks and other steps to reduce transmission risk were required.

The air circulation system on airplanes may explain the relatively modest risk of spreading infection. Air flows down from the roof to the floor of planes, then exits the cabin at foot level. Any recirculated air passes through high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters similar to those used in hospitals. The regular churn of air prevents infection-spreading droplets from lingering for long.

Mayo Clinic experts say that, when a flight can't be avoided, travelers should wear a mask that properly covers the nose and mouth and keep a safe social distance (6 feet if possible), especially while waiting in lines at any point during the journey. Removing the mask briefly while eating or drinking does not significantly increase the...