A day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans to stay home for Thanksgiving, more than one million people in the United States got on planes, marking the second day that more than a million people have flown since March. Nearly three million additional people have flown in the days since.
The high number of travelers speaks to a sense of pandemic fatigue that many people are experiencing. For some, the desire to see family is worth the risk of potentially getting the coronavirus while traveling.
But it’s important to remember that the current number of people flying, while increasing, pales in comparison to the number who still find the idea of getting on a plane frightening. In the 11-day period around Thanksgiving last year, a record 26 million people flew. This year, fewer than half that number are likely to travel.
How safe is flying? Numerous studies on that question have been published in the months since the pandemic brought travel to a halt in March. Many of them suggest that the risk of contracting coronavirus while flying is very low.
Infectious disease, health care and aerospace engineering experts say that the studies — by the Defense Department, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and others — are accurate, in part, but they all have limitations.
One much-publicized study on flying, conducted by the Defense Department, found that “overall exposure risk from aerosolized pathogens, like coronavirus, is very low” and concluded that a person would have to be sitting next to an infectious passenger for at least 54 hours to get an infectious dose of the virus through the air. But the “54-hour” number has since been removed from the report at the request of the authors, who worried it was being misinterpreted.
Although there has been no evidence of plane flights causing many super-spreader events, there have been cases of transmission. In September, a man flying from Dubai to New Zealand tested negative for the virus, but was, in fact, infected and passed it on to other passengers. The flight had 86 passengers and seven of them tested positive for the virus when they arrived in New Zealand, despite having worn masks and gloves. The seven passengers had been sitting within four rows of each other and the virus’s genetic sequence in six of seven of the positive passengers was identical.
In October, Irish officials, in a report in Eurosurveillance, a journal published