Using these and other measures as part of a layered approach could push the risk of catching the virus on a plane below that of other activities, including grocery shopping and eating at a restaurant, researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health concluded.
“Though a formidable adversary, SARS-CoV-2 need not overwhelm society’s capacity to adapt and progress,” the report said. “It is possible to gain a measure of control and to develop strategies that mitigate spread of the disease while allowing a careful reopening of sectors of society.”
This study, from the industry-funded Aviation Public Health Initiative, is likely to be cited by airlines and plane manufacturers as they continue to try to convince the public that it is safe to fly as long as proper precautions are taken.
The Harvard study follows the recent release of a Defense Department study that concluded that wearing a mask continuously while flying could reduce the spread of the virus because of how air is filtered and circulated on an airplane. Along with previous research, the two studies further bolster the case for wearing face coverings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recently updated its guidance on face coverings to say that it “strongly recommends” that masks be worn on all forms of public and commercial transportation.
The Harvard team included experts on environmental health, industrial hygiene and infectious diseases whose goal was to develop a “comprehensive understanding of the intersection between the science informing SARS-CoV-2 transmission and the operations in the aviation environment.”
In this instance, they focused on strategies to protect people during what they called the “gate-to-gate” part of their journey. A second study, expected in early 2021, will look at the science and recommend strategies to safely manage the “curb-to-curb” portion of a traveler’s journey.
It is being funded by airlines, airports and aircraft manufacturers.
Leonard Marcus, founding co-director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, a collaborative effort of the Harvard School of Public Health and the Kennedy School of Government, said that the industry’s involvement with the study did not influence the team’s findings.
“There were open conversations back and forth and we were very adamant about maintaining our independence,” Marcus said. “We felt that the lines were drawn well enough for us to conduct our independent research.” He declined to say how much the study cost.
Since the pandemic began, many have viewed air travel with suspicion in part because it places people in an enclosed space with others for a significant amount of time — behavior that runs counter to much of the guidance from health officials.
The CDC, for example, continues to caution that air travel presents some risks because of those factors.
Researchers have identified examples where the virus may have been transmitted while travelers were on board an aircraft. In one instance, a woman flying from London to Hanoi in March appears to have infected as many as 15 other passengers and crew members. In another case, researchers