Aug 7, 2020

COVID-19 flight risks: Five months in, is it really too early to tell?

How likely are you to become infected with COVID-19 as a result of flying?

"Several experts have said it's too early to know the transmission virus during air travel," according to a recent New York Times article on weighing the risks of general travel.


We know how many people check-in for flights each day at U.S. airports. The Transportation Security Administration keeps daily statistics published on its website.  

The National Transportation Safety Board requires airlines to track everything from reports of mishandled luggage to flight delays. How hard would it be to compile information on the percentages of passengers who reported becoming ill - say within 14 days - of boarding a flight?

How hard would it be to require airlines to provide this information by asking passengers to submit contact information, and agree, as a prerequisite to boarding, to provide current health information when asked in a post-flight e-mail or phone follow-up?

This comes to mind after reading a study by MIT Sloan School of Management professor Arnold Barnett on the likelihood of contacting the virus from a nearby passenger if the middle seat was left unoccupied.

His conclusion: The mathematical probability of being infected by COVID-19 while flying on a U.S. air carrier in July, 2020 was one in 4,300. With the middle seat empty, that fell to one in 7,700. 

The point of the study was to measure the benefits of leaving the middle seat open.  What jumped out at me was the conclusion that the probability of overall risk seems to be low, or at least lower than I think most of us would perceive it to be. 

The point is we don't know, and we should. If this study's conclusions are true, and the methodology solid, it would seem to behove airlines to start gathering their own statistics, and publicize them, along with comparison data on the statistical risks of doing other things such as traveling by train or going to the grocery store.

TSA's figures show the airlines have been carrying about  500,000-700,000 passengers per day since the beginning of July. That's down considerably from the 2.5 million or so per day during the same period last year. So yes, it might be too early to see what the situation would be if planes were full. But chances are they won't be for a while, so why not start compiling data now based on current numbers?

Airlines are fighting a battle of perception vs. reality. Most would-be flyers don't realize that the risk from touching surfaces is minimal, and air circulation isn't the real concern, with HEPA filters installed to catch 99 percent of airborne microbes. Spending time in an enclosed airport or sitting next to someone for a long period of time is, thus the emphasis on social distancing and leaving middle seats open.

My inbox fills daily with press releases from airlines about their cleaning methods, mask requirements, temperature checks, changes in food and beverage offerings etc. It's all window-dressing unless they can do more to assure passengers that others on the plane aren't infected. 

No amount of cleaning can make up for this type of assurance.

Mask requirements are a start. Next needs to come mandatory testing for everyone 72 hours before flying, and compilation and publication of the numbers who report infections two weeks or less after flying.

It will be up to individual airlines to make any of this happen. The Federal Aviation Administration has failed so far to mandate a national policy for COVID-19 prevention precautions on planes or in airports.

Granted there are variables. A person could become infected while lingering at the airport, or contact the virus some other way post-flight. No statistics are 100 percent foolproof, but having at least some information would go a long way towards making people comfortable about flying again.

Airbnbs vs. hotels

I favor Airbnbs over hotels while traveling during COVID-19, mostly because I'm more concerned about the number of people with whom I might come in contact (in hallways, lobbies, elevators etc.) than I am about what types of cleaning products are used to sanitize a room. 

The safest bets are self-contained Airbnb units, such as a mother-in-law apartment or cottage as opposed to a condo in a large building or room in someone's house. I've rented two stand-alone Airbnbs in the past month, both clean and well-kept. In looking through the listings, I noticed that Airbnb is now including the bottom-line price, including taxes and fees, in the initial listing.

This is a change from before when the total price came up only after you clicked the "reserve" button. True, you saw the total cost before entering your credit card info, but by that time, you were ready to book and likely reluctant to keep looking.  

Now the listings look like the one below. The base price is listed in bold with the total below it in small print. 

Full disclosure aside, how does an "entire cabin" in Ashland, Oregon (see above) go from a listed price of $57 a night to a total of $116, more than double the advertised price? This is because the  "cleaning" fee is $45, almost the cost of the room, and the Airbnb service fee is another $14.

My hunch is that Airbnb has convinced owners to tack on higher cleaning fees as a way to generate more revenue while having the base price appear low.

How to get around this? There are plenty of options out there. Look for places that have low ($10-$20) or no cleaning fees, and pass on the rest. 

1 comment:

  1. This is great info! I didn’t realize the risk was so low. It makes me feel better but imagine how much lower the risk would be if mandatory testing preflight would be in place? That would make me even more comfortable.