How to avoid catching the virus on a plane


In light of the public health emergency that’s been declared, travel to and from China has been heavily restricted over fears of contracting the deadly coronavirus.

The death toll from China’s coronavirus outbreak has surpassed 250, the government said Saturday. At least 258 people have died and more than 11,000 people have been infected in China, according to new figures from officials in hard-hit Hubei province.

Panicked travellers are weary of hopping on flights knowing global travel routes would expose them to outbreaks. And their fears are warranted.

Fresh cases have been detected abroad, with more than 20 countries now affected.

Amid the chaos, one airline has delved deeper into how exactly germs are shared and viruses are contracted during air travel – and how to avoid it.

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First off, let’s cover the basics.

Respiratory illnesses are most commonly spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, dispersing droplets of saliva, mucus or other bodily fluids into the air around them.

Exposure to those droplets – that is, by breathing it in, or coming into direct contact with those germs – can lead to your own infection as well.

Some symptoms of the coronavirus are respiratory, including a dry cough and sneezing.

There’s also evidence that respiratory viruses can be spread through surfaces upon which the droplets land but also, in the air through which they travel as aerosols.

But, according to Arnold Monto, professor of epidemiology and global public health at the University of Michigan, it’s not the major mechanism of transmission.

“To be sustained, to allow true aerosols, the virus has to be able to survive in that environment for the amount of time it’s exposed to drying,” he says. Viruses would rather be moist, and many fade from being infectious if left dry for too long.


Malaysia Airlines shared an informative post on Saturday explaining how the air is recirculated and filtered in a plane.

“According to our aircraft manufacturers, the air you’re breathing in-flight is recirculated and filtered regularly by High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, which means you’re less likely to be exposed to things like bacteria and viruses through the recycled air,” they wrote on Facebook.

“In fact, because of the high-efficiency filters and frequent air circulation, the air you’re breathing on your flight is likely much cleaner than most office buildings and is on par with the air in most hospitals.”

Their post was accompanied by a diagram, demonstrating how the cabin’s used air is expelled towards the back of the aircraft, while the air that circulates the cabin is changed 20-30 times per hour.

The airline also included images of the air flow in both a typical single-deck and a double deck aircraft.

Arrows indicated the direction of air flow as it’s filtered in through individual air outlets overhead and filtered out through the underfloor areas.


A recent study conducted by the US-based FlyHealthy Research Team put all of this information in the context of an aircraft environment, generating some solid findings on how to reduce your risk of infection on a plane.

The study observed the behaviours of passengers and crew on 10 transcontinental U.S. flights of about three and a half to five hours.

Led by Emory University’s Vicki Stover Hertzberg and Howard Weiss, they not only looked at how people moved about the cabin, but also at how that affected the number and duration of their contacts with others.

Close encounters – i.e. being within six feet of an infected person – for extended periods of time – i.e. ten minutes or longer – were key in enabling germs to be transmitted.

The study therefore pinpointed the safest place to sit would be in a window seat, reducing extended close encounters with others on the aircraft.

The study notes that passengers in middle and aisle seats — even those that are within the two-seat range — have a fairly low probability of getting infected.

Things change if a crew member is ill.

As the study stated, a sick crew member has a probability of infecting 4.6 passengers, “thus, it is imperative that flight attendants not fly when they are ill.”

With such limited information on how the coronavirus transmits, following some basic principles should reduce one’s risk of contracting the disease in a plane. These include washing your hands with regular soap or using an alcohol-based hand sanitiser after touching any surface, as well as avoiding contact with coughing/sneezing passengers and not touching your face whenever possible.


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