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What you should know about risk of COVID-19 transmission on planes

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Staggered meal service timings, or no meal services, reducing hand carriage limits and orderly departure procedures would all be useful methods of further reducing the risks of transmissions on-board a flight.

What you should know about risk of COVID-19 transmission on planes
Air travel has surged again as the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have been relaxed gradually across the world. But as the passenger count for flights continues to slowly climb back to the pre-pandemic levels even in the face of restrictions and caps, many passengers are left wondering about the risk of infection during flights.
New research has found that while flights remain relatively of low risk if COVID-19 protocols are followed, the potential of transmission is highest during meal services and departures as well as boarding procedures.
One study published in the Journal of Travel Medicine, found that the probability of getting an infection can be reduced by 73 per cent by using high-efficiency masks and by 32 per cent by using low-efficiency masks. The study also found that the chances of viral transmission increased by 59 per cent when masks are removed during meal service when compared to a flight where passengers are masked during the entire duration.
The study was ran based on aerosol dispersion models, as SARS CoV-2 is now known to spread through aerosol action, tested within aircraft cabins.
While other studies, like the one published in the Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease journal and another published in the Journal of Travel Medicine, have found that the chances of transmitting an infection in flight are low. However, the quality of evidence in most studies is low and underreporting for asymptomatic cases remains an issue.
The chances of catching COVID-19 from a fellow passenger who is already infected remains low on a flight due to the strong ventilation systems designed in aircraft cabins.
Most of these systems were designed for filtering out cigarette smoke in the era that smoking was allowed on flights and use hospital-grade equipment to filter cabin air with outside air before re-circulating it. The filtration and infusion of fresh air prevent the infected passenger from shedding enough viral particulates in the air within the cabin to infect others in most cases. But the filtration system on most airlines is running during the flight.
Boarding and departure procedures are often undertaken when the ventilation system of the aircraft is shut down and passengers are often jostling in close quarters. With passengers often breathing over each other while taking out their hand carriage from the overhead bins, the chances of spreading infection become much higher.
Staggered meal service timings, or no meal services, reducing hand carriage limits and orderly departure procedures would all be useful methods of further reducing the risks of transmissions on-board a flight. While studies have indicated a low risk for COVID-19 transmission, a few to none of them have conducted their studies with the Delta variant in mind.
With air travel slowly resuming, the best way of protection remains constant use of highly efficient masks as well as vaccination to prevent onboard transmission of COVID-19.
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