A new study conducted by United Airlines and the Department of Defense has found that the risk of COVID-19 transmission onboard is virtually non-existent.
New Study By United Airlines Finds Virtually Zero Risk Of COVID-19 Transmission On Airplanes
The study, conducted by United and the DOD via the U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), claims to be the most “comprehensive” on cabin airflow completed to date and demonstrates that when a passenger is seated and wearing a mask, on average only 0.003% of infected air particles could enter their breathing zone, even when every seat on the plane is occupied.
The study occurred entirely onboard United Airlines aircraft and found that 1.) fast onboard air recirculation, 2.) downward designed air ventilation, and 3.) efficient HEPA filters make the cabin of a United airplane one of the safest indoor environments in the world.
How The Test Was Conducted
United explained how testing, formally called TRANSCOM/AMC Commercial Aircraft Cabin Aerosol Dispersion Tests, was conducted:
The research, which also involved the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), was done by releasing particles across the entire cabin by section. Each section had 42 bio-defense sensors set up in every seat across multiple rows. Sensors were also placed in the galleys and jetbridge during ground testing. A mannequin (her name is Ruth!) equipped with an integrated aerosol generator was used to simulate breathing and coughing with a mask on and off. The sensors represented other passengers who could potentially come in contact with the particles emitted. To make the situation even more realistic, thermal blankets were used to simulate bodily heat emission onboard.
You can read the study here (.pdf).
Key Data Points Of Airplane Cabin COVID-19 Study
Key date points of the study include:
- Study took place over six months
- 300 tests conducted over 38 hours of flight time and 45 hours of ground testing on United aircraft
- Each test released 180 million particles – equivalent to the number of particles that would be produced by thousands of coughs
- The results showed that, when seated with a mask on, on average only 0.003% of particles actually made their way into another passenger’s breathing zone – the findings show that even in neighboring seats, risk is limited and that masks continue to help minimize exposure when someone coughs
- Approximately 99.99% of particles were filtered out of the cabin within six minutes due to fast air circulation, downward air ventilation and efficient filtration systems on the plane
- In addition to TRANSCOM, DARPA and United, study participants included Boeing, S3i, Zeteo Tech, and the National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska.
What United Airlines Is Saying About The New Study
Addressing the new study, United’s Chief Customer Officer, Toby Enqvist, stated:
“Throughout the pandemic, our top priority has been the health and safety of our customers and crew. It’s why we supported the work of military officials, medical experts and aviation engineers that shows that the cabin of an aircraft is one of the safest environments in the world. These results from the Department of Defense demonstrate that the steps we have taken at United, including maximizing air flow, running our air filtration system at all times, enforcing a mandatory mask policy and overhauling our cleaning procedures mean your chances of COVID-exposure on a United aircraft are nearly non-existent, even if your flight is full.”
I’ve linked to the study above and would welcome the commentary from scientists who have the time to examine the study, its methodology, and its findings. On the surface, this looks like incredible news that the risk of COVID-19 transmission onboard airplanes (at least United Airlines…) is near zero. Such a finding should bring more skeptical people back into the air and help move us toward a greater resumption in air travel.