Listen Live

A metal tube packed with people with no windows that open and a shared bathroom.

What could go wrong?

In the era of the COVID-19 pandemic, it would seem like a lot of things could go wrong, but a Harvard professor says in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post that traveling by air may not be as dangerous – virus wise – as you may think.

Joseph Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science, argues that despite what you may think, “you don’t get sick on airplanes more than anywhere else.”

Allen says airlines have, for many years, worked to keep passengers safe from disease while they travel.

“The ventilation system requirements for airplanes meet the levels recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for use with COVID-19 patients in airborne infection isolation rooms,” Allen said.

Allen also points to a study about a person suffering from tuberculosis who took a flight with 169 other passengers. According to the study, the median risk of infection to the other passengers on the airplane was between 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 1 million, Allen said.

Wearing a mask, as some airlines now require, reduced the incidence of infection another tenfold, he said.

Some who commented on the article pushed back on Allen’s statement that air travel doesn’t make it more likely that you will contract the infection.

One person pointed to a photo of a packed United flight from New York to San Francisco that has been shared widely online.

Ethan Weiss, a San Francisco-based cardiologist, posted a photo of the packed airplane. Weiss was in New York volunteering at hospitals to help care for patients infected with the novel coronavirus. He was headed back to San Francisco when he boarded the flight.


“I’m more scared of getting on the airplane on Saturday than I’m walking into the hospital,” Weiss told KGO.

Allen wrote that airplanes take care to keep the environment within the plane safe by exchanging the air in the cabin 10 to 12 times an hour.

“To get technical, airplanes deliver 10 to 12 air changes per hour. In a hospital isolation room, the minimum target is six air changes per hour for existing facilities and 12 air changes per hour for new.”

“Airplanes also use the same air filter — a HEPA filter — recommended by the CDC for isolation rooms with recirculated air. Such filters capture 99.97% of airborne particles.”

Allen wrote that there are several things that travelers, airports and airlines can do to make the trip a safer one in terms of avoiding potential infection by the novel coronavirus.

Here is what Allen suggests travelers do:

  • Wear a mask.

  • Wash your hands frequently.

  • Maintain social distancing as much as you can.

Here is what Allen would like to see airports do:

  • Require masks in the airport.

  • Make bathrooms touchless.

  • Increase ventilation rates.

  • Consider deploying upper-room germicidal UV fixtures in areas with high-occupant density.

  • Institute temperature screening.

  • Deploy hand-sanitizer stations.

  • Require passengers stay in a designated area once they check-in and come to the gate they will depart from.

Allen has these tips for airlines:

  • Ensure gate-based ventilation is operating during boarding and disembarkation.

  • Have a plan for loading the airplane.

  • Require masks.

  • Provide meals and bottled water during boarding and discontinue in-flight meal and drink service.