Coronavirus on a Plane: One Flight’s History Outlines the Risk

By EJ Mundell
HealthDay reporter

TUESDAY August 18, 2020 (HealthDay News) – How safe is it to fly during the pandemic?

The story of an international flight in March – before the advent of mask and glove protocols – suggests that even with infected passengers on board, the chances of catching COVID-19 are relatively low.

Report from August 18 in the newspaper JAMA network open, German researchers report the health of 102 passengers who boarded a Boeing 737 in Tel Aviv, Israel on March 9 and landed in Frankfurt, Germany, 4 hours 40 minutes later.

This was before the advent of strict hygiene protocols – mandatory masks on passengers and crew, discouraging aisle gatherings, reduced meals on board – that airlines have since put in place to curb transmission. SARS-CoV-2.

Among the 102 passengers: A group of 24 people who had had contact with a hotel manager a week before and who were later confirmed to have COVID-19. Upon landing in Frankfurt, all passengers in the tour group underwent throat swab tests to help detect any coronavirus infection.

The tests were positive for seven of the 24 people in the tour group.

So, did any of the other passengers on the plane get COVID-19 from these seven infected passengers?

Based on follow-up interviews with 71 of the remaining 78 passengers, as well as coronavirus tests on 25 others, “we discovered two probable transmissions of SARS-CoV-2 on this flight,” the researchers reported. The research team was led by Dr Sandra Ciesek, from the Institute for Medical Virology at Goethe University in Frankfurt.

The other two cases occurred in passengers who were seated within two rows of one of the infected passengers of the tour group, the group from Ciesek noted.

The researchers also pointed out that, as the tests of the 71 passengers took place up to nine weeks after the flight, the infections in the two new cases could still have “occurred before or after the flight”.

For infectious disease specialist Dr Amesh Adalja, the report is good news for people who feel the need to fly in the near future.


“I think it is remarkable that with seven index cases, only two possible cases of COVID-19 transmission occurred on a flight lasting more than four hours without any mitigation measures in place,” Adalja said. He is a senior researcher at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Ciesek’s group agreed, noting that the cabin airflow from the ceiling to the floor could have helped prevent widespread infection on board, and “one would assume that the rate could have been further reduced if the passengers wore masks. “

The advent of in-flight mask warrants and other precautions have been crucial in making flying safer, Adalja believes.

“For me, flying is an activity that has been made relatively less risky during the pandemic,” he said. However, he added, “passengers should take care of social distancing, avoid assembly areas, wash their hands, refrain from touching their face and wear masks as directed.”

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SOURCES: Amesh Adalja, MD, senior researcher, Center for Health Security, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore;JAMA network open, August 18, 2020, online

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