Research for infection protection

SARS-CoV-2: How high is the risk of infection at airports and on aeroplanes?

All over the world, the Corona pandemic has turned our lives upside down and changed the way in which we travel. After almost the entire global air traffic came to a halt in spring earlier this year, things have started to turn back to normal since summer. While some might get on a plane with no major concerns, others worry about the risk of infection and continue to avoid this means of transportation. Nevertheless, it is not yet fully resolved how high the risk of getting infected with SARS-CoV-2 in airports or on aeroplanes actually is.

Airlines refer to the efficient ventilation systems in the aeroplane cabins that guarantee a constant flow of air. Thus, they are supposed to render the risk of infection unlikely, even with little distance to fellow travellers. However, the expert on ventilation systems Qingyan Chen from Purdue University in Indiana, USA, already showed via a CFD Simulation in 2011 (Gupta et al. 2011) that the virus-containing aerosols emitted by an infected person can spread out over the aeroplane much further than presumed. The professor for aircraft design, flight mechanics and aircraft systems Dieter Scholz cautions against a careless approach to air travel as well. He indicates though that the risk of infection is also linked to the current infection rates in the country of origin and travel destination. With the momentary infection activity in Germany (state: mid-July 2020) he assumes a calculated risk of about 1:1000 on an average flight.

A modelling and simulation study on the impact of hand hygiene that was published as early as late 2019 by an international team, revealed some interesting results. There was no connection to the current pandemic, but the study was based on the assumption of influenza-like pathogens. The researchers found out that improved hand hygiene in airports could inhibit the spread of infectious diseases by at least 24% to 69%, depending on the scope and reach of the measures. They concluded that proper handwashing could have a significant impact on the worldwide dissemination of contagious diseases transmitted by contact or air.

To keep the risk at airports and on flights as low as possible, extensive measures have been adopted, which you can look up in the recommendations of the Robert Koch Institute and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency. Depending on the nature of their arrival, passengers at German airports are obligated to continuously wear a face mask not later than upon entering the terminal building (exception: eating and drinking onboard), adhere to the required minimum distance (exception: seating on board) as well as stick to the established rules of hygiene.

So: Flying, is it a yes or a no? This question must be considered by each person individually since, despite all epidemiological measures, transmissions of SARS-CoV-2 at airports or on the plane cannot be ruled out as long as the pandemic persists.

So, for the individual it goes on to say “KOW”: Keep your distance, observe the rules and wear a face mask.