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Southwest CEO’s Boast About Airplanes’ Low COVID Risk Flies By Key Concerns

Victoria Knight

During a May three look on “Face the Nation,” Southwest CEO Gary Kelly mentioned that he believed it was protected for Americans to fly throughout the coronavirus epidemic and aircraft is as protected as some other house.

“I don’t think the risk on an airplane is any greater risk than anywhere else, and in fact, you just look at the layered approach that we use. It’s as safe as an environment as you’re going to find,” mentioned Kelly.

We thought it was vital to examine this declare. After all, as states elevate stay-at-home orders and summer season climate begins to roll in, Americans are sure to begin desirous about journey and whether or not it’s protected to fly within the COVID age.

We contacted Southwest Airlines to ask for the proof to again up Kelly’s declare. An organization spokesperson pointed us to this assertion — the Southwest Promise — which outlines steps taken by the airline to guard workers and prospects from COVID-19. The spokesperson additionally mentioned that each one of Southwest’s flights are geared up with HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters, which are also utilized in hospitals to supply sufferers with clear air.

All in all, it appears Kelly has some legitimate factors concerning the security of airplanes proper now. But he additionally overplayed his hand.

A Matter Of Space 

So, how may somebody contract COVID-19 on a aircraft?

As with any setting that holds many individuals on the identical time, there’s a danger of virus transmission by means of the air in addition to from high-touch surfaces. On an airplane, that might be a toilet door deal with. And it’s simple to image how this danger may be amplified on an extended flight with different vacationers.

Case research have proven that illness transmission happens on flights. In 2003, for example, 16 people examined optimistic for extreme acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS – a coronavirus carefully associated to COVID, after flying on a aircraft with a symptomatic passenger. The H1N1 virus, or swine flu, has additionally been documented as having unfold between aircraft passengers. COVID-specific analysis is ongoing.

There are particular points regarding air journey.

Qingyan Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University who led Federal Aviation Administration-sponsored analysis inspecting infectious illness transmission on airplanes, mentioned his crew targeted on particular methods an sickness might unfold on an plane: by direct contact with a sick particular person, and by inhaling massive droplets or aerosols expelled from a sick particular person.

Large droplets are brought on by forcing air out of your mouth, corresponding to by respiration, speaking, coughing or sneezing. Numerous the droplets are too massive to remain airborne lengthy, whereas others are very small and might keep airborne for hours. The small droplets are known as aerosols.

Though the air in an airplane is very circulated, Chen mentioned aerosols can nonetheless dangle within the air for about three to 4 minutes earlier than being sucked up by the air flow system.

Aerosols “can be really dangerous. They have the highest risk,” mentioned Chen. “The small droplets can get to the seven rows around a sick passenger within four minutes.” However, Chen was fast to level out that his research had been targeted on different airborne illnesses, like flu, tuberculosis and SARS.

Airlines keep that there’s little evidence that COVID-19 transmission has occurred on planes and that their ventilation systems are 99.9% effective at filtering out microscopic particles. There are additionally studies that recommend aerosols have a extra restricted attain, simply two seats laterally and one row in entrance of and one row behind an infectious passenger.

The International Air Transport Association, which represents 290 airways from 120 nations, despatched us particulars of a May 5 presentation by the group’s medical adviser through which he referred to 3 “studies” — truly two educational journal research letters and a news article — that confirmed little or no transmission of COVID-19 on flights that contained passengers who had the coronavirus.

One of the letters, although, mentioned a case through which an individual flew from the Central African Republic to France and “likely got infected on the plane.”

“The research that’s been done over the years is that there’s really not any significant difference in what you would have in a building such as we’re sitting in today, in terms of air quality,” FAA chief Steve Dickson mentioned at a March Capitol Hill hearing.

But there are spatial concerns which are additionally vital. Airplanes are small enclosed areas, making social distancing difficult. More on this later.

Airlines for America, a U.S.-focused business commerce group, mentioned the business is “taking substantial, proactive steps to protect passengers and employees,” together with requiring that passengers and workers put on masks, implementing intensive cleansing protocols and altering insurance policies such because the boarding of passengers from again to entrance and the lowered frequency of meals and beverage companies. (Kelly is on the board of administrators for Airlines for America.)

Degrees Of Risk 

But is that sufficient to justify Kelly’s assertion that airplanes are as protected as nearly some other surroundings? Not actually.

The key distinction is that you’ll be able to make selections about how a lot house to place between your self and different folks in virtually all different areas, mentioned Karen Hoffmann, the speedy previous president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.

“There are levels of what you can and can’t do in an airplane,” mentioned Hoffmann. “If you’re in your home, you can maintain no one else coming into your space. In the grocery store, you can walk away from other people.”

Chen agreed. “In offices, you have ample space to stay far apart and keep your social distancing,” he mentioned. “But in the airplane, you cannot keep your social distance or else the airliners will not be profitable.”

How do the infection-transmission dangers of airplanes maintain up as compared with different modes of mass transportation?

“Compared to more cramped and less ventilated settings like subways and buses, the risks of getting sick on an airplane are lower overall — though you still face risk from whatever infections the people in your row may be carrying,” wrote Rachel Vreeman in an e-mail. She is the director of the Arnhold Institute for Global Health at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine.

But the analysis on this comparability predates COVID-19 and the influence of social distancing.

The longer common size of time passengers spend on airplanes versus mass transit might additionally make it much less protected, Vreeman added.

With all of these elements taken into consideration, Kelly’s assertion unravels.

Is an airplane probably carrying an infectious passenger safer than your individual dwelling, the place the one contact with a stranger you will have is grabbing the takeout dinner order left in your porch by a supply particular person? Clearly not.

So, What About That Summer Vacation?

It’s clear that airways do carry a transmission danger for sicknesses like COVID-19, particularly if you find yourself seated near an infectious particular person. And folks have much less management over social distancing on airplanes than in different areas.

Even with these potential dangers, wouldn’t it be smart to ebook a flight now?

Overall, Chen mentioned he thought it might be fairly protected so long as each passenger and crew member wore a masks. He additionally prompt that passengers wipe down the surfaces round them and wash their arms, however mentioned there would nonetheless be a danger.

In late April, unions representing pilots and flight attendants despatched letters to the Department of Transportation, the Department of Health and Human Services, Congress and the White House detailing the dangers confronted by airline employees — in addition to the variety of infections and even deaths they’ve suffered — and urging elevated security protections. Shortly after, most major U.S. airlines, together with JetBlue, Frontier, American, Delta and United, introduced they might now require prospects to put on face masks throughout check-in and boarding, in flight and whereas deplaning. Southwest issued an analogous rule that can take impact May 11.

Hoffmann mentioned that for a flight to be protected it will be essential for social distancing guidelines to be in place, corresponding to blocking out seats to house out vacationers.

“Can you maintain that level of separation in an airplane?” she requested. “I question whether that is something which can be accomplished.”

Delta has began blocking out its center seats. Some airways are blocking the seats close to the place the flight attendants sit. United will not be permitting prospects to pick seats subsequent to one another or the center seats. Both Southwest and JetBlue have mentioned they may restrict the variety of passengers to make sure house between them.

Vreeman identified, although, that there are occasions on an airplane or in an airport the place it could be not possible to take care of the suitable distance from others.

“When someone is walking in the aisle to the bathroom, for example, you might be stuck in close proximity — and that would increase the risks to both of you,” she wrote.

And whereas all main U.S. airways have announced elevated efforts to disinfect and sanitize planes and eliminate or reduce meals and beverage service, there may be nonetheless a hazard.

“Any time you are removing your mask or putting anything in your mouth, the risk of transmitting or being exposed to the virus will be higher,” wrote Vreeman.

And, Vreeman argued, we’re nonetheless within the containment stage of the pandemic, which implies transferring from one place to a different is itself a public well being danger.

“At this moment in American history, it is still very possible that someone infected with this very contagious virus could be in that space on the airplane with you — or that you could be carrying the virus yourself to a new location,” she wrote.

Our Ruling

The CEO of Southwest Airlines mentioned throughout a TV interview that the dangers of COVID-19 transmission on an airplane aren’t any better than wherever else and that “it’s as safe as an environment as you’re going to find.”

Research reveals that airplanes’ robust air flow techniques do filter out virus particles. However, research additionally point out that some stage of danger concerning the transmission of an infectious illness persists, significantly in case you are seated close to a contagious particular person. And passengers’ skill to take steps to mitigate that danger is restricted.

Kelly’s assertion contained a component of fact concerning planes’ air filtration and mitigation steps taken by the business, however he took it a bit too far and ignored key items of knowledge and context.

We charge it as Mostly False.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nationwide well being coverage information service. It is an editorially unbiased program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which isn’t affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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