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Study: Wearing masks on planes makes COVID-19 risk ‘virtually nonexistent’

Oct 18, 2020, 1:54 PM
masks on planes...
A Delta Air Lines flight, headed for Minneapolis, had to return to Salt Lake City International Airport Friday night after experiencing engine troubles. The flight landed safely. The flight continued on to Minnesota Saturday morning. (PHOTO: Courtesy of KSL TV)
(PHOTO: Courtesy of KSL TV)

A new study from the U.S. Department of Defense and United Airlines suggests the risk of COVID-19 transmission is “virtually nonexistent” when passengers are wearing face masks on planes.

The study, published Thursday, consists of 300 tests conducted over a six-month period. It found there’s only a 0.003% chance a passenger will transmit cough particles to someone sitting next to them. 

“99.99% of those particles left the interior of the aircraft within six minutes,” United Airlines Chief Communication Officer Josh Earnest told ABC News. “It indicates that being on board an aircraft is the safest indoor public space, because of the unique configuration inside an aircraft that includes aggressive ventilation, lots of airflow.”

Masks slow the spread of COVID on planes, study suggests

Researchers conducted the study by equipping mannequins in aircrafts with aerosol generators. For each test, the generators emitted roughly 180 million particles — the same number of particles produced from thousands of coughs. 

The mannequin would then emulate a passenger breathing, and occasionally coughing, throughout the flight. This sequence was repeated — with and without a face mask on the mannequin – to determine how particles were spread in the aircraft.  

The study results come as airlines are seeing an uptick in travelers since the spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic halted international and some domestic travel. Although air travel is 70% lower compared to last year, things may get busy again as the holiday season approaches. 

Workers say air travel is safe

Airline workers say traveling by plane is safe amid the pandemic. In fact, research from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) shows the risk of contracting COVID-19 is in the “same category as being struck by lighting.”

Among 1.2 billion airline travelers, roughly 44 coronavirus cases were caused by potential in-flight transmission, according to the IATA. Several of those were reported before airlines required face masks. 

“Even with all of this promising information about the safety of air travel and some of the advances that we’re making in terms of implementing a testing regimen,” Earnest said. “We recognize we’re not going to be anywhere close to back to normal until we have a vaccine that’s been widely distributed and administered.”

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Study: Wearing masks on planes makes COVID-19 risk ‘virtually nonexistent’