Friendly skies? Study charts COVID-19 odds for plane flights: Researchers calculate chances of catching the illness when aloft, though pandemic conditions keep shifting

What are the chances you will contract Covid-19 on a plane flight? A study led by MIT scholars offers a calculation of that for the period from June 2020 through February 2021. While the conditions that applied at that stage of the Covid-19 pandemic differ from those of today, the study offers a method that could be adapted as the pandemic evolves.

The study estimates that from mid-2020 through early 2021, the probability of getting Covid-19 on an airplane surpassed 1 in 1,000 on a totally full flight lasting two hours at the height of the early pandemic, roughly December 2020 and January 2021. It dropped to about 1 in 6,000 on a half-full two-hour flight when the pandemic was at its least severe, in the summer of 2020. The overall risk of transmission from June 2020 through February 2021 was about 1 in 2,000, with a mean of 1 in 1,400 and a median of 1 in 2,250.

To be clear, current conditions differ from the study’s setting. Masks are no longer required for U.S. domestic passengers; in the study’s time period, airlines were commonly leaving middle seats open, which they are no longer doing; and newer Covid-19 variants are more contagious than the virus was during the study period. While those factors may increase the current risk, most people have received Covid-19 vaccinations since February 2021, which could serve to lower today’s risk — though the precise impact of those vaccines against new variants is uncertain.

Still, the study does provide a general estimate about air travel safety with regard to Covid-19 transmission, and a methodology that can be applied to future studies. Some U.S. carriers at the time stated that onboard transmission was “virtually nonexistent” and “nearly nonexistent,” but as the research shows, there was a discernible risk. On the other hand, passengers were not exactly facing coin-flip odds of catching the virus in flight, either.

“The aim is to set out the facts,” says Arnold Barnett, a management professor at MIT and aviation risk expert, who is co-author of a recent paper detailing the study’s results. “Some people might say, ‘Oh, that doesn’t sound like very much.’ But if we at least tell people what the risk is, they can make judgments.”

As Barnett also observes, a round-trip flight with a change of planes and two two-hour segments in each direction counts as four flights in this accounting, so a 1 in 1,000 probability, per flight, would lead to approximately a 1 in 250 chance for such a trip as a whole.

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