Ready to fly? Airline industry celebrates significant study on COVID spread

The airline industry is celebrating the result of a significant and substantial scientific study looking at the risk of contracting coronavirus while on airliners.

Considering who did this latest hard scientific research and the results they found, we might actually want to consider air travel this holiday season. 

Friday afternoon at SFO Airport, the once bustling United terminal, was either at a snail's pace or devoid of passengers. Nonetheless, in the COVID era, a few hearty souls choose flight over fear.

"When I first started flying it was a little nerve wracking I guess but then I kind of got over it. That's just how i feel about it personally," said United business traveler Ian Dunaway.

Yet, some have deep concerns.

"Very much so because like you know, the particles, it's like higher risk to get it in an airplane anyways," said passenger Kaleo Tana.

But, a new joint Defense Department/United Airlines study concludes that the risk contracting COVID-19 on an airliner, even a completely full one, on a 12 hour transoceanic fight, is “extremely unlikely” or “virtually impossible.”

The tests were conducted in the air and on the ground on United Boeing 777 and 767 wide body aircraft.

The researchers, from the legendary and secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency performed hundreds of test series.

"To have a respected research agency like DARPA, doing a study like this, I think it's an additional reason for confidence in air travel," said San Francisco Airport spokesman Doug Yakel.

Researchers released traceable aerosols, emitted from a masked and unmasked mannequin, to simulate thousands of coughs and sneezes. Researchers then tracked the aerosols all around the cabin.

The advanced high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration system recycles the entire cabin’s air supply every two to three minutes and catches 99.97% of viruses, equivalent to hospital systems.

"I'll take those odds any day. So that definitely takes a weight off my shoulder kind of thing," said Mr. Dunaway.

"The conclusion that when it comes to enclosed spaces that there is probably is no safer space than the cabin of an aircraft," said Mr. Yakel.

More progress is in the works and likely to be adopted universally.

"I would want to see them screening people, like temperatures and stuff might make people feel a little bit better," said Ms. Tana.

In fact, this week, United started screening Hawaii passengers for COVID with great success.

"We're hearing that those flights are booked better than 90% which is great to see," said Yakel.

Despite widespread fear of flying, the airline industry means to survive. "I have not seen a level of commitment like this ever before from the airline industry," said Yakel..

The study concludes a passenger would have to be on a 54 hour flight to be exposed to enough of the virus to become infected. Currently the world's longest flight is New York to Singapore at 18 hours and 30 minutes.