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Long-haul Flights and the COVID Scare

by Ajay Prakash

Travelling on long-haul flights during the pandemic could be challenging. With the myriad of restrictions and advisories issued by Governments and airlines, the experience can turn out to be quite harrowing. After a long twelve-hour flight, one may have to get into two-week quarantine in a hotel. All these conditions are enough to make you put off travel plans altogether.

Typical economy class seating on wide-body aircraft –  Credit: Alamy, South China Morning Post

The MIT Study

During July, Professor Arnold Barnett from MIT Sloan School of Management published a research report that said, blocking the middle seat in an aeroplane does cut the risk of getting COVID-19  by fifty per cent (50%).

The chances of anyone catching the Coronavirus on a typical 2-hour flight is 1:4300, which drops to 1:7700 if the middle seat is kept vacant.

Professor Barnett further stated that three things would have to go wrong for someone to catch COVID-19 on a flight:

  • There has to be someone in a neighbouring seat who has COVID-19
  • The face mask fails
  • Proximity between passengers is close enough for the germs to spread

He inferred that the probability of all three factors contributing at the same instance was extremely low. Regarding the ‘2-hour flights’ reference, Professor Barnett said that he made this mention because an average flight duration in the US was about 2 hours. For instance, a New York – Chicago or a Los Angeles – Seattle flight would be close to two hours.

You can hear the full interview (Podcast) with Professor Barnett in an interview with the September 4 edition of Aviation Today.

What Are Long Haul Flights

There is no standard definition of long-haul flight durations. Every airline or country have their conventions. The North American tradition is that every flight above three thousand miles (3000 miles) or four thousand eight hundred kilometres (4800 km) is termed as long-haul. This distance is covered in a flying duration of about seven hours.

Can COVID-19 Spread on Long-haul Flights – Vietnam Study

A few days ago, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had made an early release of a paper written by a group of scientists from the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology, Hanoi, Vietnam and the Hanoi Medical University. The paper, (authored by Nguyen Cong Khanh, Pham Quang Thai, Ha-Linh Quach, Ngoc-Anh Hoang Thi and others) is scheduled to be published in November 2020, but due to its time value relevance, CDC gave it an early release on its website.

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ICAO Coronavirus 2020 Evolution Map – Source: Johns Hopkins University, CDC, WHO, NHC

The objective of the study was to assess the role of in-flight transmission of COVID-19. Vietnam Airlines flight VN54 from London to Hanoi (March 2) was chosen for this experiment. Two hundred and seventeen (217) passengers and all crew members were traced to up to their final destination.

While boarding in London, the passengers were asked to declare any COVID-19 symptoms. In Hanoi, all the arriving passengers of flight VN54 were subjected to body temperature screening by thermal imaging. Passengers from high-risk countries at that time – United Kingdom, China, Italy and South Korea were subjected to COVID-19 testing on arrival and were sent to the mandatory fourteen-day quarantine.

There is interesting data compiled by ICAO on the evolution and spread of COVID-19 through flight travellers.

It may be noted that the passengers did not wear masks on the flight since it was not a mandatory requirement in March this year.

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Vietnam Airlines Dreamliner Business Class – Credit Onemileatatime

Key Findings of The Research Paper

Sixteen (16) persons were found to be infected after the flight. Twelve (12) out of these were seated in Business Class along with one asymptotic passenger who did not declare the medical condition before boarding in London. Two passengers were found infected in the economy class who probably got infected after arrival during immigration or baggage claim area.

The most likely route of transmission during the flight is aerosol or droplet transmission from the infected person, particularly for persons seated in business class. Contact with an asymptotic person might also have occurred outside the aeroplane at the airport, in particular among business class passengers in the pre-departure lounge area or during boarding.

Recommendations

The NIHE scientists concluded –

We conclude that the risk for on-board transmission of SARS-CoV-2 during long flights is real and has the potential to cause COVID-19 clusters of substantial size, even in business class–like settings with spacious seating arrangements well beyond the established distance used to define close contact on aeroplanes. As long as COVID-19 presents a global pandemic threat in the absence of a good point-of-care test, better on-board infection prevention measures and arrival screening procedures are needed to make flying safe.”

It is evident that there is a big difference between travelling on short-haul vs long-haul flights. Professor Barnett’s hypothesis is based on mathematical modelling, whereas the NIHE scientists carried out ground experiments backed by medical tests. However, re-doing the same experiment with masks on every passenger may change the outcome.

What is your opinion on travelling on long-haul flights in these difficult times? Your comments will be highly appreciated.

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