Home Travel Health Chances of Contracting COVID-19 on a Plane Are Lower Than You Think


A woman wearing a face mask on an airplane
PHOTO: A woman wearing a face mask on an airplane. (photo via exithamster / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

The demand for air travel has plummeted since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. back in February, to the point where capacity dipped to just five percent in April compared to last year.

Even now, the expected uptick in flying has only grown to about 25 percent capacity on flights as people are worried about getting in the close proximity – some might say confined space – of an airplane.

But should they be?

According to a new report by Arnold Barnett, a professor of management science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the chances of contracting the virus in an airplane are lower than you think.

Barnett approached it mathematically, calculating the odds of becoming infected while flying, and came up with this: There is a one in 4,300 chance of catching COVID-19 while flying on a full two-hour flight and a one in 7,700 chance if the airline leaves the middle seat open.

Barnett considered a range of variables, including whether you sit near a passenger that is considered contagious, if face masks do not provide the proper protection, whether the air filtration system is doing its job and if the middle seat is empty.

Barnett also calculated that the odds of dying from catching the virus while flying is about one in 600,000 for healthy people and about one in 400,000 for people who are older and/or suffer from other health concerns.

Airlines have been cracking down on passengers wearing face masks, and most have been good about keeping middle seats unoccupied.

Assuming planes are carrying about 150 passengers per flight – an arbitrary figure that is probably on the low end given the lack of demand and the fact that restrictions prohibit Americans from traveling to Europe right now – that’s an average of one person contracting the virus every 28 flights on a two-hour ride and one person becoming infected for every 51 flights on a plane with middle seats empty.

Barnett’s findings were backed by University of Massachusetts biology professor Erin Bromage, who said air exchange systems in planes are even better than in hospitals, completely replacing the cabin air 30 times per hour.

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