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How likely is it for consumers to catch a virus on a plane?

Experts say proximity to the infected person is key

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Photo (c) Manuel-F-O - Getty Images
Though airlines have started taking extra precautions to reduce the spread of germs onboard, many consumers have become more fearful about getting sick after hopping a flight. 

Now, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have analyzed just how likely it is to catch a virus while on a plane and what consumers can do to make sure they stay healthy. 

“...We try to identify vulnerabilities in different policy or procedural options, such as different boarding procedures on a plane,” said researcher Ashok Srinivasan. “We generate a large number of possible scenarios that could occur and examine whether one option is consistently better than the other. If it is, then it can be considered more robust. In a decision-making setting, one may wish to choose the more robust option, rather than rely on expected values from predictions.” 

Reducing the spread of germs

The researchers used advanced computer technology to analyze countless different scenarios that could happen aboard a plane to evaluate how germs are spread. Though models don’t assess humans’ behavior perfectly, the researchers were able to mimic how humans move through airports and airplanes so that they could evaluate thousands of possible events. 

Srinivasan explained that because of the close quarters and crowding during the boarding process, consumers are more likely to get sick during boarding than deplaning. 

“Airlines use several zones in boarding,” Srinivasan said. “When boarding a plane, people are blocked and forced to stand near the person putting their luggage in the bin -- people are very close to each other. This problem is exacerbated when many zones are used. Deplaning is much smoother and quicker -- there isn’t as much time to get infected.” 

The researchers also explained that proximity is typically the fastest way travelers can contract an infection while on a plane, as those sitting in the rows closest to the infected person are at the highest risk. However, it isn’t the only way -- it’s also important for consumers to consider the way air flows and travels on planes. 

“You may still be at risk [for a virus] even if you are farther away than six feet,” said Srinivasan. “In discussion with modelers who advocate it, it appears that those models don’t take air flow into account. Just as a ball goes farther if you throw it with the wind, the droplets carrying the virus will go farther in the direction of the air flow.” 

The close proximity, the masses of people, and the quantity of flights, which is up to nearly 100,000 per day, make it difficult for germs to stay contained among airplane travelers. The researchers urge all consumers to use their best judgement when traveling, and to just stay home if it’s too risky. 

“When the stakes are high, one may wish to err on the side of caution,” said Srinivasan. 

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