In an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, masks are now required on all air travel in New Zealand and many other countries.
What is it about air travel that increases the risk of catching viruses like the flu and COVID-19?
Most outbreaks reported on aircraft are related to respiratory infections such as seasonal flu or food-borne illnesses, according to Dr David E Farnie, medical director of Global Response Center for MedAire Worldwide.
“Given the incubation period for most diseases is days, not hours, the majority of passengers experiencing infectious symptoms in-flight likely acquired their illness prior to boarding.”
Dr Farnie says an aircraft exposes travellers to a similar level of risk to cinemas, classrooms, buses and cruise ships.
“Given the excellent ventilation system on modern commercial aircraft and that the main method of transmission is by direct contact and/or airborne droplet, most risk is isolated to those passengers sitting in the same row or behind or in front of someone sick.”
The International Air Transport Association’s fact sheet on Public Health Emergency Preparedness says modern air filters on planes have a similar performance to those used to keep the air clean in hospital operating rooms. “Air supply is essentially sterile and particle-free,” it says.
How to avoid getting sick on a plane
Dr Farnie recommends the following tips to stay healthy on a plane:
- Wear a face mask or covering
- Practice physical distancing on planes, keeping at least 1-metre distance between yourself and others. In New Zealand and many other countries, physical distancing practices are already in place.
- Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, especially before eating.
- Use hand sanitiser approved by the airline or take your own (ensuring it’s under 100ml).
- Try not to touch your face often, as germs can enter through your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Choose safe food and water: drink only bottled or boiled water and eat well-cooked food served fresh and hot.
- Do not travel if you are ill.