Response to airborne transmission: What we can learn from airlines

Superspreading: What we expected

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, boarding a plane sounded to many like one of the riskiest endeavors. With their confined spaces and recirculated air, planes appeared to be prime candidates for superspreading events. In preparation, many airlines implemented multifaceted prevention strategies.

So how risky are flights now?


Surprisingly, a number of airlines have had fairly low transmission rates between passengers. Current research connects these low rates to a number of prevention strategies, discussed below.


Strategy 1: Masks

A recent NPR article attributes this success to enforced mask policies, noting that airlines such as Emirates who have “very rigid” mask requirements have run numerous safe flights. A series of five 8-hour flights with a total of 58 COVID-positive passengers among them led to no known transmission to the nearly 2,000 other passengers on those flights.

Strategy 2: Clean air

Another important factor for airline safety is frequent, rigorous cleaning. A Commercial Aircraft Cabin Aerosol Dispersion Test performed in August 2020 by U.S. Transportation Command indicated that aerosols diluted quickly because of the “high air exchange rates” and the use of HEPA filtration on recirculated air. On average, the aerosol tracer particles were detectable for only six minutes (compared to 90 minutes in the average American home).

Strategy 3: Disinfection

In a groundbreaking study, the University of Arizona examined the effectiveness of a Boeing cleaning crew in disinfecting a mockup Boeing 737 cabin. Unknown to the crew, live traces of the MS2 virus had been placed around the cabin prior to cleaning. This virus was chosen because it does not infect humans—and it is more resistant to disinfectants than the coronavirus.

After a cleaning regimen including “chemical disinfectants, electrostatic spraying, antimicrobial coatings and Ultraviolet wands,” researchers found that the methods had gotten rid of 99.9% of the MS2 virus. The good news? According to the researchers, if those methods can eliminate MS2, they can eliminate SARS-CoV-2.

What else should we consider?

A fourth strategy recommended by both the CDC and OSHA is the installation of physical barriers, specifically where people are likely to be within six feet of each other for an extended time. This measure is especially important where the rigorous cleaning regimens used on aircraft aren’t available. Polycarbonate or acrylic shields can be custom fit to your space and provide an extra protection to those present—whether students, educators, customers, or employees.


Let us help

Are you looking for physical barriers to follow state or local guidelines and help make your space as safe as it can be? Contact us to discuss your partition needs and let our engineers develop a custom solution.


#slowthespread #workplacesafety #studentsafety #teachersafety #employeesafety #backtowork #backtoschool #inthistogether

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