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Covid-19: Air travel safer than grocery shopping, says Harvard study

T V Jayan New Delhi | Updated on October 28, 2020 Published on October 28, 2020

Representational image   -  REUTERS

Layered effective non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI) such as wearing of masks and face shields and temperature screening at boarding gates, together with maintenance of appropriate in-cabin ventilation, can bring the risk of novel coronavirus transmission below that found in other routine activities such as grocery shopping and eating out, a new study has found.

The findings are part of a study carried out by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Harvard Kennedy School of Government for American aviation industry, which included airlines, aircraft manufacturers and airport operators.

The Aviation Public Health Initiative (APHI) took shape in July this year, four months after the US declared a National Covid-19 emergency, following conversations between the Harvard researchers and captains of the aviation industry.

“Though a formidable adversary, SARS-CoV-2 need not overwhelm society’s capacity to adapt and progress. It is possible to gain a measure of control and to develop strategies that mitigate spread of the disease while allowing a careful reopening of sectors of society. There is much to gain by simply following the science,” said the first part of the report prepared by APHI called The Gate-to-Gate Journey, which focused on in-flight virus transmission risk. The second part of the report named the Curb-to-Curb journey focusing on airports is expected to be released in early next year.

Air travel versus daily activities

The study was the first one to compare air travel to other daily activities and it found that there could very low risk of virus transmission on airplanes as they have multiple layers of mitigation measures.

It said that the ventilation in aircraft is normally very good that it effectively counters the risk of transmission that may emanate from the close proximity among the travellers during flights. Besides, frequent exchange of air and good quality filters can remove 99.99 per cent of the particles containing the virus from cabin air.

Compliance with face mask-wearing and the aircraft’s environmental control systems effectively dilute and remove pathogens significantly and thus reduce the risk of passengers and crewmembers acquiring Covid-19 during the cruise segment of their journey, it said.

While mask compliance reduces the dispersion of larger droplets that may deposit on surfaces, general airline cleaning practices and passengers sanitising hard surfaces around their seats lowers the probability of contacting SARS-CoV-2 infected surfaces, the report said.

Taken together, mask compliance, managed physical distancing and improved ventilation during boarding and de-planing, can effectively reduce the risk of potential transmission to the very low levels encountered during cruise conditions.

However, the report said to be effective, passengers should subject themselves to a self-screening for Covid-19 symptoms and comply with all the airline’s Covid-related procedures, including physical distancing during boarding and de-planing. The role of gate and flight crewmembers in assuring compliance will be essential and should be supported by airlines’ policies to hold passengers accountable, the report said.

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Published on October 28, 2020
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