Covid-19 infections are increasing worldwide, and airplanes are one place where social distancing is nearly impossible. However, the resistance to wearing a face mask on board may increase. Six US airlines have banned nearly 1,500 people from flying due to a flagrant violation of requirements to wear a muzzle on aircraft.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, air travel seemed like a risky endeavor. Some scientists even worry that planes could be contagion sites. For example, in March, a Vietnamese businesswoman with a sore throat and cough boarded a plane from London. Ten hours later, it landed in Hanoi, Vietnam. It injured 15 people on the plane, including more than half of the passengers in business class.
Then, in April, the airlines changed their dealings. Many companies have started requiring passengers to wear muzzles on planes, and some airlines have even imposed this policy. On Monday only, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it now “strongly recommends” all passengers and crew to wear a mask.
The question is: How effective is the face mask? Does the muzzle make traveling across countries safe for a family visit?
Scientists are just beginning to answer this question. Their findings provide a ray of hope as well as new ideas about the most important things to protect yourself on board.
The new evidence came from Hong Kong, where health officials were rigorously testing and tracking all passengers who landed in the city. “They perform a PCR examination for all passengers upon arrival, isolate them in single rooms for 14 days, and then test them again,” says infectious disease doctor David O. Freedman of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. And this is how health officials there know which passengers got on the plane and are already infected with the virus and whether they could infect anyone else on the plane.
Friedman and his colleague analyzed this data, with a special focus on one airline: Emirates Airlines.
“Since last April, Emirates has had a very strict muzzle-wearing policy,” Friedman said. Not only does the airline require passengers and crew to wear a mask, but the flight attendants also make sure everyone keeps their masks as tight as possible, for the duration of the flight.
Friedman was informed of all Emirates flights from Dubai to Hong Kong between June 16 and July 5. The result was expressive. During those three weeks, Emirates had five flights with seven or more infected passengers on each flight, for a total of 58 coronavirus-infected passengers traveling on eight-hour flights. However, no one else on the aircraft – that is, 1,500 to 2,000 passengers – had caught the virus, according to a Friedman and co-reporter in the Journal of Travel Medicine.
In fact, since airlines began enforcing muzzle wear, Friedman says, scientists have not documented a single widespread outbreak on board. “The flights that have been highly documented for transmission were flights early in the epidemic.”
Together, these data indicate that the masks are working and fine. “There is encouraging evidence from a number of flights that wearing a muzzle helps greatly, but it would be nice to study it better,” he says. “The evidence in the current circumstances is that the risk of injury is low on board an aircraft, if there is a strict obligation to wear it.”
And this last part is the key. To reduce the risks on airplanes, everyone needs to wear a face mask while on the plane. And the US Transportation Command recently stated that the planes have excellent ventilation and air conditioning systems, which remove corona virus particles from the air approximately every six minutes.