Airlines Misrepresent COVID Risks From Flying – Expert; Even Airline Study Shows Significant Risk to Many Passengers
Airlines Are Misrepresenting COVID-19 Risk
WASHINGTON, D.C. (September 28, 2020) - Predicting that "a considerable portion of business travel will be lost forever," airlines are touting a suspect study, and again claiming - incorrectly - that planes' ventilation systems with HEPA filters largely solve the problem, something thoroughly debunked when I helped get smoking on airlines banned, says public interest law professor John Banzhaf.
The airlines point to a Harvard study claiming that there's "less than 1% risk of transmitting COVID in an aircraft," but the study was only a theoretical simulation belied by actual instances of mass infection, and is obviously suspect because it was sponsored by the aviation industry which is trying desperately to save itself by convincing people to ignore Dr. Anthony Fauci's clear warning that flying is very dangerous.
Even a 1% chance of infection with a deadly virus is significant, suggests Banzhaf, asking how many people would willingly play Russian roulette with a gun where only 1 out of 100 chambers had a bullet.
Moreover, for many people who travel frequently, the overall risk, even using the airlines' suspect theoretical model, can be daunting.
For example, if the risk of contracting COVID is only 1% on any given flight, the risk jumps to about 20% for anyone who flies 20 time a year, as many business people do - worse odds than when playing Russian roulette with a conventional 6-shot revolver with only one bullet. Fly biweekly, and the odds jump to almost 25%; far worst than the 17% risk in Russian roulette.
Similarly, for a family of 4 flying only 5 times a year, the risk that at least one family member will become infected with COVID-19 - according to the suspect study - is also about 20%.
Flying Can Still Cause Infection
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently echoed claims by airlines that the HEPA filters and other measures make flying safe during the pandemic, even for the tens of millions who are over 65 and/or have a wide variety of medical conditions, but new evidence of actual transmissions in flight, plus lessons learned before smoking on planes was banned, show that flying can still cause infection with this deadly coronavirus, says Banzhaf, the man behind the ban on smoking about commercial carriers.
For example, 187 passengers and 6 crew on a TUI AG flight from Zante to Cardiff were quarantined after at least 16 cases of COVID-19 were confirmed after one August 25th flight.
A CDC study of two Korean flights showed that even asymptomatic passengers could and did spread the coronavirus to other passengers even though each passenger was given an N95 mask, and staff members followed strict infection-control procedures at the airport and in the air overseen by the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Also, Qingyan Chen, professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, cited two other international flights: on 1 a single passenger infected 14 people while flying from London to Hanoi. There was also transmission of the deadly virus on a second flight from Singapore to Hangzhou, even though all passengers were wearing face masks.
Experts have also pointed out that boarding and deplaning - when the plane's ventilation system isn't even running, and people are unable to stay distanced from one another - is one of the riskiest parts of the airline travel process, as is going through security and waiting in the departure lounge where ventilation may likewise be very poor.
False Claims About Microscopic Tobacco Smoke Particles
So, while airlines are increasingly touting what they call their superb ventilation system and HEPA filters in an effort to convince passengers that it is safe to fly despite coronavirus particles released into the air by other passengers, they made virtually the same false claims about microscopic tobacco smoke particles back in the days when smoking was permitted - although only in smoking sections - aboard commercial flights, notes Banzhaf.
But even once smoking during flights was restricted to small smoking sections, and the percentage of smokers shrank, passengers in the no-smoking section most distant from a smoker would still know the minute anyone lit up, despite the "superb" ventilation system and "hospital style" high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, because the minute particles of tobacco smoke would drift rapidly throughout the airplane, says Banzhaf, whose legal actions first required airlines to provide no-smoking sections, and eventually led to a ban on smoking on all flights.
Obviously airline ventilation systems with HEPA filters did not protect passengers from inhaling drifting particles of smoke, something which was undeniably clear to any passenger with a sense of smell. That's why, says Banzhaf, the no-smoking section of an aircraft is like the no-peeing section of a swimming pool - things drift no matter how good the filters might be claimed to be.
If the coronavirus had an odor, few people would fly, because they would have the same irrefutable proof that - as with tobacco smoke particles - passengers are being exposed to deadly airborne particles, he argues.
Many media reports, and videos of actual flights, show that enforcement of airline requests that passengers wear masks is spotty to non-existent, and there still is no federal law or regulation requiring passengers to wear marks.
The Problem Of Lack Of Enforcement
The same problem of lack of enforcement occurred years earlier with regard to smoking, even though it was federal law which restricted or later prohibited smoking aboard flights, because airlines were reluctant to enforce the requirements upon passengers who objected.
If airlines didn't even enforce a requirement imposed by federal law, we certainly can't expect them to do so - in effect, bet our lives on it - when there are no federal rules, much less laws, requiring masks on planes, suggests Banzhaf.
Moreover, he notes, passengers are of course permitted to remove their masks while drinking or eating (even food or beverages they brought on board where the airline doesn't serve any), and there is no way to insure that passengers do not remove their masks in the restrooms, thereby potentially infecting all subsequent restroom users with a deadly virus which can linger in the air and on surfaces for hours, according to recent research findings.
Indeed, a new study shows that more than 10% of adults do not even wash their hands after using a restroom. So, in addition to potentially infecting other passengers with germs when they return to their airplane seats, this irresponsible behavior suggests that they are even less likely than other passengers to wear masks when in an airplane restroom, suggests Banzhaf.
Professor Banzhaf also notes that, despite claims about how often the ventilation system exchanges the air, airlines in the past would frequently reduce the amount of fresh air introduced into the cabin - something the passengers could not readily detect, and often without even telling the flight attendants - because it saved them money, since there is an added cost of bringing in fresh air from the outside.
Thus, says Banzhaf, there is no guarantee that the same substantial reduction in the quality of air in the cabin from failing to introduce sufficient outside air into the ventilation system - and in passenger safety and health - will not occur now, especially when major carriers are desperate to save money, and there are no federal laws, rules, or regulations preventing or even restricting this potentially deadly cost-saving measure.
Flight Crew Gets Their Own Supply Of Fresh Air
Interestingly, if the air is so fresh and clean in the passenger cabin, one has to wonder why airlines feel it is necessary to provide the flight crew in the cockpit, at considerable additional expense, with their own clean independent air supply.
Contrary to the suspect Harvard study, other theoretical studies, which now confirm actual experience, show that a single airline passenger with COVID-19 - even if he is displaying no symptoms - can infect other passengers several rows in front of as well as behind him, despite the vaunted airplane ventilation system.
Mounting evidence - including "super-spreading" events in which multiple choir singers, restaurant diners or dance students were infected - suggests that the virus can be transmitted through microscopic droplets known as aerosols that can float in the air, potentially for hours, as well as larger particles which do not remain in the air as long.
Indeed, there have been well documented events in which the virus has actually traveled as much as 26 feet (in a meat-packing plant) and 14 feet (in a well ventilated restaurant).
So, even if it were somehow possible to maintain a 6-foot social-distance separation between passengers - not only during the flight, but also during the more crowded boarding and disembarking process - it would be woefully insufficient to provide even minimal protection from possible death or disability from COVID-19, argues Banzhaf.
He asks, by way of analogy, how many people would be willing to walk through a room filled with deadly king cobras - whose striking range is said to be no greater than 6 feet - if they were guaranteed to come no close than 6 - or even 14 - feet from any snake.
An example of just how dangerous flying can be is the experience of a virologist and epidemiologist who, because he was all too well aware of the risks of COVID-19, was very careful to wear a mask and gloves, and to wipe down all the surfaces which he touched, on a single recent flight.
He nevertheless contracted COVID-19 just days after his flight, and believes that - because of the many precautions he was so careful to take - it had to come from airborne virus particles which entered through his eyes during the flight.
This is just the kind of evidence which has convinced Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease experts, not to risk his life by flying, probably not until there is a proven COVID-19 vaccine.
So, "don't bet your life on airline HEPA hype," Professor Banzhaf warns.